Saturday, March 30, 2013

Oviraptor: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

In honor of Easter Sunday I chose to review a dinosaur that has an interesting association with eggs.  Oviraptor is a bird like dinosaur that lived in what is now Mongolia during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 80 million years ago.  It measures a little under five feet long from head to tail.  It was the first discovered member of its family, Oviraptoridae, characterized by having a short, powerful beak similar in a way to modern day parrots (also dinosaurs but not direct descendants of Oviraptorids).  Although there are no teeth in Oviraptor's beak, it and its relatives have small protruding points growing down from the roofs of their mouths.  This, combined with powerful jaw muscles, may have been a useful feeding tool for cracking...something

Oviraptor philoceratops life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza

Oviraptor's diet is somewhat of a mystery.  We know for sure that it at least ate lizards because the bones of one was found in an Oviraptor skeleton's stomach cavity.  It is likely that Oviraptor was eating something else, as well with such a specialized mouth, however.  Maybe it was using its powerful beak like parrots do to crack open nuts and seeds?  Perhaps it could crack open shellfish like clams and muscles?  Or maybe it used its beak to crack open eggs from other dinosaurs? 

Illustration of the first discovered Oviraptor philoceratops skull.  It was badly crushed before being discovered and may have had a larger crest starting at the nose. 

The first Oviraptor bones were discovered in the 1920s nearby a nest of dinosaur eggs.  At the time, the paleontologists were discovering a whole lot of bones from another dinosaur called Protoceratops (a small ceratopsid featured in my sex post back in February) in the same area and assumed the eggs belonged to it and the Oviraptor was stealing them.  Oviraptor was then given its full name, Oviraptor philoceratops, which means "Egg Thief that Loves Cratopsids".  To make the story even more interesting, the Oviraptor's skull had been found crushed.  The scientists imagined that it had been done by the jaws of a parent Protoceratops protecting its nest. 

For decades after that Oviraptor was portrayed as an egg stealer.  Then in the 1990s, a team of paleontologists discovered another nest of eggs almost identical to those presumed to be from Protoceratops back in the 1920s.  This nest had the bones of a kind of Oviraptorid(named Citipati) literally laying on top of it.  Inside the eggs the paleontologists found the bones from unborn babies of this same dinosaur.  Because of this discovery, scientists realized that they were likely wrong about Oviraptor as well.  It wasn't stealing eggs from other dinosaurs.  It was protecting its own! 

That's it for this week!  As always feel free to request a dinosaur or other prehistoric animal on our facebook page or in the comments below and I will definitely review it in an upcoming week!  


Osborn, H.F. (1924). "Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia." American Museum Novitates, 144: 12 pp., 8 figs.; (American Museum of Natural History) New York. (11.7.1924).

 Dong and Currie, P. (1996). "On the discovery of an oviraptorid skeleton on a nest of eggs at Bayan Mandahu, Inner Mongolia, People's Republic of China." Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 33: 631-636.

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