Sometime in 1993, the same year Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a farmer in China’s Henan Province made a very rare find. Nestled among a cluster of large fossilized eggs lay the skeleton of a baby dinosaur, curled up for a nap lasting over 66 million years.
Ever since paleontologists started finding dinosaur eggs in the 19th century, they’ve wondered which species laid them. Baby Louie—nicknamed at a later time for photographer Louie Psihoyos—seemed like a perfect opportunity to match eggs to bones.
But in a plot twist worthy of film noir like The Maltese Falcon, the prehistoric infant quickly disappeared into the black market and went on a circuitous journey across international borders. Even when it was housed in a U.S. museum, the complicated provenance of the fossil kept researchers from publishing about it.
Now Baby Louie has at last gone home to China, and paleontologists are starting to tease out what the infant dinosaur can tell us about a family of dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs.
University of Calgary paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky updated the fossil's tale last month at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Dallas, Texas. When Baby Louie was discovered, Zelenitsky says, there was a huge market for dinosaur eggs illegally smuggled out of China. That’s how the tiny dinosaur wound up in the hands of private collectors in the United States, and it was around that time the fossil came to the attention of paleontologists.
“I had initially started doing research on the specimen in an attempt to identify the parentage of the eggs”, Zelenitsky says. But interpreting the fossil wasn’t so simple. Most dinosaurs are named from adult specimens, and multiple studies have underscored the fact that dinosaurs changed dramatically as they grew up.
“Because of the nature of the preservation and the immaturity of the skeleton, who laid the eggs was difficult to identify from the skeleton alone,” Zelenitsky says. The best bet seemed to be some kind of oviraptorosaur—feathery theropod dinosaurs that had strange crests and parrot-like beaks. Yet Baby Louie seemed to be rather large for such a species.
“The eggs themselves suggest oviraptorosaur,” Zelenitsky says, “but their size indicated an adult egg-layer that would have been more than a dozen times larger than oviraptorosaurs known at the time.”
In addition, Baby Louie was held in a private collection, and many paleontologists balk at publishing on such fossils because access to them is not guaranteed. Thankfully, Baby Louie was purchased by the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 2001 and, after a lengthy search for an appropriate facility to permanently house the infant, the fossil was sent to the Henan Geological Museum in 2013.
“This museum was considered ideal because it is the province where Baby Louie was found, and it houses many other fossils from the region,” Zelenitsky says.
During the long wait for Baby Louie to scamper home, other discoveries confirmed the early hypothesis that the nest could have been laid by some form of enormous oviraptorosaur. In 2007 paleontologist Xu Xing and his colleagues discovered Gigantoraptor in the 70-million-year-old rock of Inner Mongolia. At 26 feet long and about a ton and a half in weight, this dinosaur was far larger than any other oviraptorosaur yet found. Gigantoraptor confirmed that the giant oviraptorosaurs Baby Louie hinted at really did exist.
While the exact parent species of Baby Louie remains unclear, the Chinese find means that the little dinosaur could have grown to a similarly impressive stature. The current estimate for the adult’s size is comparable to that of Gigantoraptor.
And now that the fossil has a permanent home in a museum, Zelenitsky and her colleagues can put together reliable research on the baby dinosaur and its unusual family. “I think the next step,” Zelenitsky says, “will be to use this little guy to help us examine growth in these giant, magnificent oviraptorosaurs.”