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Scientist puts his finger on a dinosaur with one digit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 5:11pm

[First published on 14 February, 2011] A scientist from Hong Kong has revealed how he literally stumbled over a new species of carnivorous dinosaur during an expedition on the mainland.

It is the first dinosaur known with only one finger on each forelimb.

Michael Pittman, 25, a PhD student at University College London, discovered the parrot-sized species - called Linhenykus monodactylus - during a trip led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which set out to look for new species near the border between Mongolia and the mainland.

'Towards the end of the trip, we were a little frustrated we hadn't found anything,' he said. 'We were walking across the desert where you get lots of small hammocks and red sandstone. As we were walking my friend said: 'Hold on Michael. Don't put your foot down.'

'Then I lifted my foot up and there were little bits of white bone. We got down on our knees and picked up the bits. I picked up one bit from the tail and I immediately knew it was part of the tail of something special.'

Its significance only became clear that evening at the camp, when a team member said the dinosaur might have had only one digit. This feature makes the specimen the only known dinosaur of its kind.

Pittman said the shape of the finger, like a digging tool, was a hint it was for digging out insect nests.

'It wasn't invincible because it was about two to three feet tall and was slender and elegant,' he said. 'People nowadays bring their chihuahua dogs out and put them in their handbags.

'I think if Linhenykus was around they would be very fashionable.'

It belongs to the theropod group, which also included the Tyrannosaurus rex and the velociraptor.

Pittman, who is half-Scottish and half-Chinese, went to King George V School in Ho Man Tin. He then studied geology at University College London, where he stayed on for his master's and now for a doctoral degree in palaeontology.

Pittman would have loved to have put his own name to the creature - when scientists discover new stars, they get to name them after themselves. But there is a code to follow for the naming of animals.

'Unfortunately, I can't call it Pittmansaurus. I would have liked to. In the future if I'm lucky enough to find a dinosaur in Hong Kong I will try to name it after Hong Kong - a Hongkongsaurus.'

But he said it was 'rather likely' there are dinosaur fossils deep beneath Hong Kong's water environments. He began to develop a strong interested in dinosaurs as a child.

'Dinosaurs, particularly the carnivorous ones, are very cool animals. They look amazing and ferocious,' he said.

'I guess the fact that they aren't around anymore and we try to dig out information about a world that we can't see anymore is amazing.'