Our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly changing. From centuries old views of slow, lumbering, lizards to a modern understanding of nimble, often feathered, diverse and intelligent animals. We now know that dinosaurs occupied almost every possible habitable niche on land, and were highly successful before the tragic events of 66 million years ago.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this changing understanding of dinosaurs comes from a group known as oviraptorosaurs. Anyone with a keenness for Latin here will understand this word to mean ‘egg thief lizard’, which is exactly what paleontologists thought they first were. The animal Oviraptor, the most famous of the group, was originally discovered, fossilized in what was thought to be the process of stealing eggs from a nest!
However, as our understanding of dinosaurs developed, and the link between dinosaurs and birds was cemented, things changed. It was noticed that Oviraptor was not stealing the eggs – it was brooding them! This exposed a whole new dimension to our understanding of dinosaurs, but poor Oviraptor still carries the mistaken label around with it.
Even today, new discoveries are helping to shape our understanding of oviraptorosaurs. A number of species are now known from across North America and Asia. They are readily identified by their strange, parrot-like faces. Some were very small, no more than the size of a turkey, whereas others like Gigantoraptor grew to more than 8 metres in length!
Many fossils have also been found with feather impressions, and it is thought that they are closely related to the origins of birds.
The latest species to be added to the oviraptorosaur family tree is Gobiraptor minutus, described by scientists this week. This absolutely adorable new species is known from a juvenile specimen, and the reconstruction below by Do Yoon Kim reveals just how cute this little proto-thief could be.
Gobiraptor comes from the Late Cretaceous of what is now the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Many wonderful species of dinosaur have been found here thanks to international collaboration efforts. Back 70 million years ago, what is now called the Nemegt Formation of rocks used to consist of a thriving ecosystem around lakes and rivers.
Gobiraptor is unusual among other oviraptorosaurs in that it has uniquely thickened jaws. Oviraptorosaurs, unlike most other theropod dinosaurs at the time, were likely omnivorous, rather than pure meat eaters. Gobiraptor likely had a strong, crushing bite, which it would have used to snack on hard objects, such as seeds, eggs or even molluscs. You can picture it now, skitting across the shoreline rocks, snacking away on molluscs as the tide and sun went down after another playful day.
No other oviraptorosaur currently known from the Nemegt Formation is thought to have had such a specialized diet. The authors suggest that being able to adapt to a number of different feeding lifestyles might have given oviraptorosaurs an evolutionary edge, and diversify into a number of different species.
The new fossil specimen is permanently held in the Institute of Paleontology and Geology in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Lee S, Lee Y-N, Chinsamy A, Lü J, Barsbold R, Tsogtbaatar K (2019) A new baby oviraptorid dinosaur (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous Nemegt Formation of Mongolia. PLoS ONE 14(2): e0210867. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210867