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Let sleeping dragons lie

Mistaken identity

In Palaeontology, there is perhaps no greater story of an accidental mix-up than the story of Oviraptor. When this dinosaur was first discovered back in 1924, it was alongside a clutch of fossilised eggs thought to belong to the ornithischian Protoceratops. Branded ‘egg seizer’, which is what the genus name means in Latin, for more than half a century Oviraptor was relentlessly depicted as a notorious thief. The palaeontologist who named Oviraptor, the infamous Henry Fairfield Osborn, suggested at the time not to take the name too literally, as it “may entirely mislead us as to its feeding habits and belie its character.” Years later, and with closer examination of the fossils, Osborn’s caution was realised, as scientists realised that the notorious beast wasn’t stealing the eggs of another dinosaur. It was actually brooding its own clutch, and died on the nest itself. Poor Oviraptor had been mis-characterised in the history books, but thanks to science, re-written eventually as a caring parent. If fossils could sue for libel, this would probably be case of the century.

Repatriate our dragons

Recently, a clutch of large dinosaur eggs has been repatriated to China, along with a small theropod skeleton. These were probably discovered by farmers in the late 1980s and early 1990s and sold overseas at rock and gem shows and other markets, with some being lost to science forever, and others being snapped up by museums and prepared to reveal exquisitely preserved embryos.

Photograph of eggs and skeleton of Beibeilong. Right image shows overlay of approximate locations of individual eggs. Eggs 1 through 4 are in an upper layer just beneath the skeleton, whereas Egg 5 is in a lower layer of the block. Scale bar is in centimetres. Pu et al., 2017.

Researchers realised that this little dinosaur specimen was something completely new to science, and named it Beibeilong sinensis. The named comes from Chinese Pinyin, with ‘Beibei’ meaning ‘baby’, and ‘long’ meaning dragon, making this little dinosaur even cuter than it already was! Beibeilong is a close cousin of Oviraptor, which is an oviraptorid, and is part of a sub-group called caenagnathids. Both together form a larger group called Oviraptorosauria. This discovery is the first time that a caegnanathid has been found associated with egg remains.

Beibeilong already has a history in the spotlight, being imported to the USA in 1993 where it was prepared, eventually ending up on the front cover of National Geographic. There, it was nicknamed ‘Baby Louie’ after the photographer for the article, Louis Psihoyos. Baby Louie spent 12 years after this on public display at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, until finally in 2013, 20 years after its discovery, it made its way back to China and the archives at the Henan Geological Museum, Zhengzhou.

Oo Beibei do you know what that’s worth?

A team of international researchers have identified the associated eggs as belonging to the oogenus Macroelongatoolithus, which literally translates as ‘big long stone egg’. Baby Louie itself is actually an embryonic skeleton, not a fully grown dinosaur, which means it either hatched just moments before its unfortunate death or was forcibly removed as it was entombed in sediment.

Reconstruction of Beibeilong embryo in ovo. (Vladimir Rimbala).

What is interesting about these eggs is that they are the largest known of any dinosaur, and much larger than those of their oviraptorid cousins. Many that have been found previously reach lengths of over half a meter! This tells us that Beibeilong, despite the tiny size of the only known specimen, could grow to ginormous sizes for a caenagnathid.

Strangely, this type of egg is found in abundance all over North America and Asia. Yet, the remains of the egg layers themselves are as rare as a shiny Pokémon. In fact, Beibeilong is about the only one, and thanks to it being found alongside these eggs, we now know that they must have belonged to caenagnathids. And giant ones at that!

What this is reveals to us then is a ‘ghost record’ – one which we know must exist out there somewhere, but just either hasn’t been found yet, or has not been preserved. We know that giant caenagnathids must have been as widespread as their eggs, so where are they?

Only time will solve this one for us, and much more delving into the Earth’s life archives. Of course, if you happen to come across any large caenagnathid fossils in the mean time, please do report them to your local palaeontologist.

Reference

Pu, Hanyong, Darla K. Zelenitsky, Junchang Lü, Philip J. Currie, Kenneth Carpenter, Li Xu, Eva B. Koppelhus et al. “Perinate and eggs of a giant caenagnathid dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of central China.” Nature communications 8 (2017): 14952. (link)

Featured image: Nesting Citipati, nicknamed ‘Big Auntie’ (source) CC BY 2.0

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