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Some Dinosaurs Used Natural Heat for Their Nests

The sauropod site may have resembled Yellowstone National Park, with geysers, hot springs and mud pots

A clutch of sauropod eggs at the geothermal nesting site in Argentina. Eggs are outlined by black dashes. From Fiorelli et al., in press.

Imagine a dinosaur as massive as Apatosaurus sitting on a nest. It doesn’t really work, does it? We know without a doubt that these large sauropod dinosaurs laid eggs, but there is no conceivable way that the gargantuan dinosaurs could have sat on their grapefruit-sized eggs without crushing them all. There must have been some other way that the eggs could have been kept safe and warm enough to develop properly. One special site in Argentina suggests that some sauropods had a geological solution to the problem.

Two years ago, paleontologists Lucas Fiorelli and Gerald Grellet-Tinner announced the discovery of a unique nesting site that sauropods returned to multiple times. During a stretch between 134 million and 110 million years ago, expectant mother sauropods came to this site to deposit clutches of up to 35 eggs within a few feet of geysers, vents and other geothermal features. This basin held naturally heated dinosaur nurseries.

A new, in-press paper about the site by Fiorelli, Grellet-Tinner and colleagues Pablo Alasino and Eloisa Argañaraz reports additional details of this site. To date, more than 70 clutches of eggs have been found across an area spanning more than 3,200,00 square feet in a section of rock about four feet thick. Rather than focusing on the habits of the dinosaurs, however, the new study fills out the geological context of the place as a possible explanation for why the dinosaurs came here.

On the basis of geological features and minerals, the authors suggest that the site may have resembled the Norris Geyser Basin of present-day Yellowstone National Park. A series of underground pipes and tubes fed geysers, hot springs and mud pots scattered across an ancient terrain crossed by rivers. The fact that the egg clutches are consistently found near the heat-releasing features is taken by Fiorelli and co-authors as an indication that parent dinosaurs were seeking out these spots to lay their eggs. And this site isn’t the only one. Fiorelli and collaborators also point out that similar sauropod egg sites have been found in South Korea.

Exactly what happened to preserve so many nests is not immediately clear, but the eggs were buried in sediments at least partly produced by the surrounding geothermal features. The eggs were eroded and thinned by the acidic nature of the entombing sediment. Some eggs were destroyed by these and other processes, but others held out and became preserved in place.

Not all sauropod dinosaurs selected such sites for nests. Particular populations near geothermal features may have received a benefit from the natural heat, but how did other populations and species far removed from these hot spots lay and protect their nests? We still have much to learn about how baby sauropods came into the world.

References:

Fiorelli, L., Grellet-Tinner, G., Alasino, P., & Argañaraz, E. (2011). The geology and palaeoecology of the newly discovered Cretaceous neosauropod hydrothermal nesting site in Sanagasta (Los Llanos Formation), La Rioja, northwest Argentina Cretaceous Research DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2011.12.002

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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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