Egg thief – Oviraptor philoceratops

Oviraptor Fossil Skeleton
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Egg thief – Oviraptor philoceratops

Oviraptor is a dinosaur accused of being an egg-thief among some early paleontologists; but thanks to building evidence over the years, this view is changing.




Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

We have learned so much in recent years about the lives of many dinosaurs. When I was a child, we were told dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles with walnut-sized brains. Popular movies like Jurassic Park furthered misconceptions about dinosaurs by painting a reptilian picture of raptors and purposefully exaggerated their size and stature. In recent years, fossils coming out of China have painted a more detailed picture of how they really looked and behaved. For instance, Oviraptor was originally interpreted to be a cold-blooded egg thief, because its fossilized bones were often found near clutches of eggs. What would a cold-blooded reptilian dinosaur be doing around eggs? It must be stealing them for a meal of course!

Then a fossil was found that showed otherwise.


Photo Credit: Mick Ellison

Motherly Love?

In a 1990 find in China, an Oviraptor was found on a nest with arms wrapped around a clutch of eggs. She wasn’t stealing them, she was incubating them! She had feathers! Downy feathers like an Emu has today, not flight feathers, but a predecessor to them. She had a wing, purposed not to fly or glide, but to wrap around a nest and to keep her eggs warm. A perfect example of a pre-wing; a half arm, half wing. This is exactly what we’d expect to find in a species in transition. These creatures were more birdlike than reptilian. They were warm blooded, and some even showed signs of pack hunting and cooperation.

In 1993, a team led by Mark Norell, discovered a large and weathered nest in the Gobi desert. In it, were about twenty eggs. They recovered a fossilized skeleton of an embryo and determined that these eggs were that of a young Oviraptor philoceratops. This find de-vilified oviraptor and gave credence to the idea that earlier finds were of an oviraptor protecting its brood.

If we were to see one today we would immediately think it was a large bird, not a dinosaur.


Image Source: Luis-Rey


Resurrecting Dinos

It is no longer acceptable to state that all the dinosaurs went extinct, as avian theropods survived! Their direct descendants are every day birds.

It has even been proposed in a book by Jack Horner (How to build a Dinosaur) that we could bring dinosaurs back! Not like in Jurassic Park, i.e. using DNA preserved in mosquitoes in amber, but by reverse engineering extant DNA, in living birds!

In chicken eggs, embryos go through a mini-evolution. As teeth begin to form, a gene is shut off which causes any potential teeth to be absorbed and a beak forms instead. A tail begins to form (as we also see in human embryos); but then, those genes are told to shut off as well. A portion of the tail is reabsorbed and a short tail remains instead. Sometimes a mutation may occur that causes these traits to be seen again, these are called, atavisms. Due to chance, sometimes, a chicken is born with teeth or a human is born with a bony tail.

In Jack Horner’s book, he discusses how scientists have turned-on genes to cause a chicken to grow teeth, or a long tail. If we took an emu and tweaked some of its silenced genes, it’s possible that within fifty years or so, we could have a creature that resembles a dinosaur more than a modern bird!


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