December 21, 2011
Alvarezsaurs are Cretaceous mysteries. These small dinosaurs, a feathered subgroup of coelurosaurs, had long jaws studded with tiny teeth, and their arms were short, stout appendages that some researchers hypothesize were used to tear into anthills or termite mounds. But no one knows for sure. We understand very little about the biology of these dinosaurs, but even as we puzzle over their natural history, more previously unknown genera are being found. The latest is Bonapartenykus ultimus from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia, and what makes this dinosaur so special is what was found with its bones.
Paleontologists Federico Agnolin, Jaime Powell, Fernando Novas and Martin Kundrát describe the new dinosaur in an in-press Cretaceous Research paper. The alvarezsaur was not in good shape when the researchers found it. While some of the bones, particularly those of the leg, were close to their original articulation, Bonapartenykus is represented by an incomplete set of partially damaged bones, without a skull. In life, the dinosaur is estimated to have been about eight and a half feet long. (Subtle characteristics of the preserved vertebra, shoulder girdle, and hips are what led Agnolin and co-authors to identify this animal as an alvarezsaur despite the paucity of bones.) But there was also something else. Next to the bones were the battered remnants of at least two dinosaur eggs. Could these be fossil evidence of a Bonapartenykus that was protecting its nest?
Determining who laid those eggs is a difficult task. No evidence of embryos has been found inside the egg, so we can’t entirely be sure of what kind of dinosaur was growing inside. The close association between the fossils is the primary line of evidence that the eggs might be attributable to Bonapartenykus. This is the hypothesis favored by Agnolin and co-authors, but they doubt that the small site represents parental care. There is no evidence of a nest. Instead the scientists suggest that the two eggs may still have been inside the dinosaur when it died—a hypothesis based on the previous discovery of an oviraptorosaur from China with a pair of eggs preserved where the dinosaur’s birth canal would have been. When the alvarezsaur perished, the eggs may have fallen out of the body and been preserved with the bones.
Yet I wonder if there might be alternative explanations. Just because fossils are found together does not necessarily mean that the organisms those fossils represent interacted in life. Making connections between organisms found at the same site requires a detailed understanding of taphonomy—what happened to those organisms from the time of death to discovery. In this case, the bones of Bonapartenykus are scattered and poorly preserved, and the eggs were also partially broken. Did the animal simply fall apart, as the authors seem to suggest, or were the bones and eggs brought together through rushing water? Perhaps the body of Bonapartenykus was carried by a water flow to the location of the eggs, fell apart after the water receded and then was buried again. This is a bit of armchair speculation on my part, and the hypothesis proposed by Agnolin and co-authors is a reasonable one, but we need a detailed understanding of how this little fossil pocket formed if we are to understand the relationship between the eggs and the bones. The geological and taphonomic details of the fossil site are important for framing hypothesis about what happened so many millions of years ago. We may have to wait for more intricately preserved fossils to be sure. A Bonapartenykus preserved on a nest, or a female dinosaur with eggs preserved within her hips, would do nicely.
Agnolin, F., Powell, J., Novas, F., & Kundrát, M. (2011). New alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) from uppermost Cretaceous of north-western Patagonia with associated eggs Cretaceous Research DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2011.11.014
November 3, 2011
“The fossil record is incredible when it preserves things,” paleontologist Jack Horner said during his talk about dinosaurs and evolution the other night, “but it’s not a complete record.” Many of the sessions and posters I have seen at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting so far are a testament to that truth, either in a positive or negative sense.
In one of the most talked-about presentations delivered so far, McMaster University masters student Ben Novak brought up some substantial obstacles that he and his co-authors have discovered to the hypothesis that remnants of dinosaur soft tissues and proteins have been found in the fossil record. The evidence for long-lived Tyrannosaurus goo may not be as good as previously thought, Novak explained, and the record of proposed dinosaur soft tissue remnants accumulated so far should be reexamined. The fossil record may not be as kind to us with dinosaur remnants as we would like.
Then again, there were notices of some exquisite finds which will provide researchers with a way to better understand dinosaur lives. A poster created by paleontologists Jingmai O’Connor, Zhou Zhonghe and Xu Xing from Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology presented fossil evidence for a Cretaceous turducken. Inside the gut contents of the non-avian, feathered dinosaur Microraptor were the partial remains of a prehistoric bird, and the fact that the bird probably lived in the trees may provide some supporting evidence for the notion that Microraptor may have also been an arboreal animal. Like anything presented at the conference, these findings will be further researched, scrutinized and hopefully published, but such preliminary announcements illustrate the difficulties and the wonders of the fossil record.
But not all the cool announcements are exclusive to SVP. Significant new discoveries pop up regularly in journals, and one that caught my eye is the first description of a Protoceratops nest by University of Rhode Island paleontologist David Fastovsky and colleagues in the Journal of Paleontology. This discovery has been a long time coming.
During the 1920s, American Museum of Natural History expeditions to Mongolia brought back, among other things, dinosaur eggs that they attributed to the horned dinosaur Protoceratops. The researchers were so confident in this assignment that the remains of a small theropod dinosaur found in the same deposits as the supposed Protoceratops eggs was named Oviraptor: “egg thief.” Restorations of Protoceratops parents guarding their nests from Oviraptor hungry from an omelet proliferated through dinosaur books. But reexamination of those eggs during the 1990s showed that paleontologists had the story wrong. Developing dinosaurs preserved inside some eggs were actually oviraptorid dinosaurs—the “egg thief” was more likely a parent! Good thing for us Oviraptor can’t sure for defamation of character.
How Protoceratops nested once again became a mystery, as paleontologists continued to amass more evidence of oviraptorid nests. The closest thing to a Protoceratops nest was an aggregation of small, juvenile dinosaurs found in China and attributable to an evolutionary cousin known as Psittacosaurus. But the new paper by Fastovsky and colleagues documents a rare discovery than can give us some insight into how Protoceratops reproduced and grew up.
The nest in question was found in the roughly 84- to 75-million-year-old strata of the Upper Cretaceous Djadokhta Formation in central Asia. Rather than being a nest full of eggs, though, this Protoceratops nest is packed with baby dinosaurs. Fastovsky and co-authors count as many as 15 juvenile animals inside the nest, but these were not newborns. The degree of skeletal development among the little dinosaurs and a lack of eggshells within the nest indicates that they had already been in the nest for some time. Sadly, these little dinosaurs were buried alive, probably by a sandstorm.
What this discovery indicates about parental care in Protoceratops is uncertain. No adult dinosaur was found in association with the babies. Perhaps the adult continued to care for the little dinosaurs while they remained in the nest, or perhaps they left the nest and the baby dinosaurs remained together in the nest area. With any luck, future discoveries will provide more insight into these points. Nevertheless, the new find adds to the growing body of evidence that many dinosaurs stuck together as juveniles. Their tragedy is a boon for paleontologists hoping to understand dinosaur lives.
Fastovsky, D., Weishampel, D., Watabe, M., Barsbold, R., Tsogtbaatar, K., & Narmandakh, P. (2011). A Nest of Protoceratops andrewsi (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) Journal of Paleontology, 85 (6), 1035-1041 DOI: 10.1666/11-008.1
June 30, 2010
Even though they grew to be some of the largest animals ever to walk the earth, sauropod dinosaurs started off small. From numerous nesting sites found all over the world it appears that gravid female sauropods, rather than putting all their effort into laying a few enormous eggs, created large nests of numerous, relatively small eggs. But why they selected particular nesting sites has long been a mystery. Now, in the journal Nature Communications, paleontologists Gerald Grellet-Tinner and Lucas Fiorelli provide evidence that nesting female sauropods picked at least one site based upon its natural heat.
In northwestern Argentina’s La Rioja Province lies a bed of white Cretaceous rock called the Los Llanos Formation. Within that formation, paleontologists have found numerous clutches of eggs at Sanagasta. The eggs are very similar to those of sauropod dinosaurs found elsewhere in Argentina, but the focus of the new study is not so much the eggs as the environment they were deposited in. In one particular area, designated sub-site E, the egg clutches are found dispersed three to ten feet away from geysers, vents, and other hydrothermal features which were active between 134 and 110 million years ago—that is, the eggs were laid in a naturally-heated nursery incubated between 140 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. During the time the dinosaurs occupied this site, it must have looked somewhat reminiscent of some areas of Yellowstone National Park, but with sauropods wandering among the hot springs instead of elk and bison.
Although this is a wonderful discovery, the fact that these dinosaurs came back to the hydrothermally-active site again and again is not unusual. Some ground-nesting birds, such as the Polynesian megapode, seek out sites warmed by volcanic activity to create their nests, and so it seems that sauropod dinosaurs, too, were very selective about where they created their nests. With this in mind, paleontologists can take a closer look at other nesting sites around the world for clues as to why certain sites were “hot spots” for dinosaur nests.
Gerald Grellet-Tinner & Lucas E. Fiorelli (2010). A new Argentinean nesting site showing neosauropod dinosaur reproduction in a Cretaceous hydrothermal environment. Nature Communications, 1-8 : 10.1038/ncomms1031