A jaw-dropping fossil has been found of an oviraptor crouching upon two dozen eggs containing fossilized embryos insidewith 7 containing infants only hours from hatching.

By Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, for study published in Science Bulletin 2020 – White indicates preserved bones

Found in Ganzhou in South China, the fossil is unprecedented in history, and not only comprises a picture of the animal and its offspring, but of its behavior.

China has generated some of the world’s most important discoveries in the field of paleontology, and this oviraptorosaur, by a group of bird-like theropod dinosaurs which thrived from the Cretaceous Period, turned out to be an absolute diamond.

Chinas lands contained the first specimens that linking dinosaurs to birds as well as the first evidence of tree-dwelling dinosaurs. The new fossil discovery appears to confirm that this species has been one which broods—sitting beneath its eggs as a system of incubation.

“This sort of discovery—in character, fossilized behavior—is the rarest of the rare in dinosaurs,” says  paleontologist Matt Lamanna in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH).

“ Although a few adult oviraptorids are found on nests of the eggs no embryos have been discovered inside those eggs. ”

The absence of contextual evidence so far had prevented paleontologists from being able to be certain that, birds, as far back as their ancestors 70 million years ago, always incubated their young, but many factors in this find lead to that conclusion being very probable.

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This perfect clutch revealed so much

Preserved with only a few millimeters of distance between fossilized bone and eggs, almost no sediment has managed to squeeze in between, suggesting the dinosaur parent was incubating them.

Moreover, the oxygen isotopes measured in the embryos put their temperature at about the same as those from the bones of the parent.

“This dinosaur was a caring parent who finally gave its life while nurturing its young,” clarifies Lamanna, who was on the study team with primary authors Drs. Shundong Bi, from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Xing Xu, paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The study was published in the Science Bulletin, with CMNH scientific artist Andrew McAfee producing illustrations for the paper.

Other interesting discoveries were the existence of complete dinosaur skeletons inside the egg substance, signs of the oviraptors’ diet, along with that not all of the eggs were incubated to the same stage of evolution —another hallmark of birds.

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Synchronous hatching is hard work, and in the avian order it’s done with the help of both parents alternating incubation duties. It’s believed to have originated much further down the evolutionary line, as now it’s a behavior demonstrated in only a few particular birds.

Oviraptor could have moved away from simultaneous hatching much sooner than scientists anticipated. The sex of the fossilized oviraptor isn’t yet confirmed and will provide a lot to the mystery.

In the stomach of the dinosaur, small stones were clues for deciding the content of its diet. Today, birds, like turkeys, have gizzards, a crude organ that stores gravel, allowing the bird to pass seeds and other hard or fibrous material through them to aid in digestion.

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“It’s extraordinary to think how much biological information is captured in just this fossil,”  says  paleontologist Xing Xu from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

“We’re going to be learning from this specimen for several years to come. ”

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