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China science

Embryo of new species of bird-like reptile laid the largest eggs yet known

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 7:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

One of the most well-known dinosaur fossil was a baby, but the embryo of a brand new species of bird-like reptile 90 million years ago laid the largest eggs yet known, according to a joint study by US and mainland scientists.

“Baby Louie” was a specimen found by farmers in Zaoying village, in Henan in the early 1990s on top of a cluster of Cretaceous reptile egg remains.

Alone with many other dinosaur eggs, the infant fossil was purchased by American fossil dealers and smuggled out of China.

In 1996 the National Geographic magazine published findings about the specimen, dubbed after photographer Louis Psihoyas. who did a cover story.

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The report drew public attention because infant dinosaur fossils were extremely rare at that time, and people knew almost nothing about the once-dominant creatures in their hatching stage.

Due to technological limits, as well as researchers’ common reluctance to be involved with fossils of disputable background, the place of in the dinosaur’s evolution tree of Baby Louie remained a mystery.

It was only after the signing of an agreement between the Chinese and US governments on a joint effort to curb fossil smuggling in 2006 and the return of the specimen to the Henan Geological Museum in Zhengzhou in 2013 that allowed paleontologists to investigate Baby Louie’s true identity.

The international research team led by Darla Zelenisky with the University of Calgary in Canada and Lu Junchang of the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing named the new species Beibeilong sinensis, or “baby dragon from China”.

In a paper published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the authors said the name was to honour the fossil’s origin.

The beibeilong belonged to a group of avian-like, feather-rich dinosaurs called oviraptors, which means “egg thief”.

The oviraptors were named by American geologist Henry Osborn in 1924 because the first specimen was found in Inner Mongolia atop a pile of dinosaur eggs, but later studies suggested the aviraptor was in fact trying to protect its unhatched offspring in the face of danger by throwing its body over the nest.

Most species of oviraptors were quite small, about half of the height of an adult human when standing up on a pair of strong hind legs, but the beibeilong could grow much larger.

Lu and colleagues estimated that an adult beibeilong could reach the weight over a tonne, equivalent to a small car.

People called it baby because the specimen was found exposed with a fairly complete set of skeleton.

The new study however found many details, such as a lack of fused skull bones, underdeveloped long bones and abundant blood vessels in bone texture suggesting the individual was far from ready to leave the shell.

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“It is likely that the embryo was forcefully extruded or removed from one of the underlying eggs to its current position,” the authors reported in the paper.

Wang Xiaolin, dinosaur researcher with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, said the study was an encouraging result from a joint international effort to fight fossil smuggling.

To avoid prosecution, smugglers often lie about the fossil’s origin or leave the providence open to ambiguity, said Wang, who was not involved in the study.

“If we don’t know when and where the fossil was found, its scientific value is not much higher than a piece of rock,” he said.

“Many fossils have been smuggled out of China, some have returned, but more remained overseas. I hope all of them can go home,” Wang added.