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New Species of Burrowing Dinosaur May Have Died During ‘Cretaceous Pompeii’

Perhaps killed by a volcanic eruption while resting at the bottom of its burrow, the four-foot-long digging dino’s remains were immaculately preserved

One of two perfectly preserved fossil skeletons of the newly discovered burrowing dinosaur Changmiania liaoningensis and an artist's rendering of the species. (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences / Carine Ciselet)
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Paleontologists have unearthed a new species of burrowing dinosaur that once walked on two legs some 125 million years ago in modern-day China, reports Jon Haworth for ABC News. A new paper describing the species, published this month in the journal PeerJ, argues it is the most primitive ornithopod—the family of dinosaurs that includes bipedal “duck-billed” species such as Iguanodon—ever found.

Found in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, researchers named the dinosaur Changmiania liaoningensis after the serene postures of the two almost perfectly preserved skeletons that underpin the discovery—changmian means “eternal sleep” in Chinese. The digging dino’s near-immaculate fossilization may have been the result of an unpleasant demise. Some researchers suggest a volcanic eruption likely trapped the nearly four-foot-long Changmiania underground where it may have suffocated or starved to death.

"These animals were quickly covered by fine sediment while they were still alive or just after their death," says Pascal Godefroit, a palaeontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and co-author of the research, in a statement.

2 Changmiania liaoningensis fossils
The two fossil specimens (A/B show the first specimen and C shows the second) of Changmiania liaoningensis. Red arrows indicate gastrolith clusters--collections of stones swallowed by the dinosaurs to aid in breaking down their food. (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)

Such pristine, three-dimensional fossilization is typical of northeastern China’s Yixian Formation, specifically the Lujiatun Beds, where the specimens were found. The hypothesis that volcanism is responsible for the site’s spectacular fossils has caused some to refer to it as the “Chinese Pompeii” or the “Cretaceous Pompeii.”

Changmiania was herbivorous and would have been a fast, upright runner, despite the other aspects of its physiology that suggested the dinosaur was a proficient digger, reports Lauren Johnson for CNN.

“Certain characteristics of the skeleton suggest that Changmiania could dig burrows, much like rabbits do today," says Godefroit in the statement. "Its neck and forearms are very short but robust, its shoulder blades are characteristic of burrowing vertebrates and the top of its snout is shaped like a shovel."

According to the statement, Godefroit thinks both specimens succumbed to the sudden volcanic event while “resting at the bottom of their burrows 125 million years ago.”

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