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At Last, a True Protoceratops Nest

Plus, fossil evidence for a Cretaceous turducken: inside the guts of a feathered Microraptor dinosaur were the partial remains of a prehistoric bird

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A Protoceratops nest containing up to 15 baby dinosaurs. From Fastovsky et al., 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.

References:

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

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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