Artwork by Julius Csotonyi
Jurassic Dino Nesting Site
Jan. 23, 2012
-- The oldest known dinosaur nesting site, dating to 190 million years ago, has been unearthed in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa. The extraordinary site, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, includes multiple dinosaur nests, eggs, hatchlings and the remains of adults for this species, Massospondylus. Project leader Robert Reisz, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told Discovery News that the dinosaur was herbivorous. Like its sauropod relatives, it had a very small head and an extremely long neck. The hatchlings walked on all fours, but adults were bipedal. "The transition from four legs to two during an individual's lifetime is a very unusual growth pattern that we rarely see in animals, but we do see it in humans," Reisz said. "The largest articulated skeleton of this animal was about 6 meters (19.7 feet) in length, but they probably grew even larger."
Dinosaur Nest The discovery provides evidence for "nesting site fidelity," according to Reisz, "as it looks like these dinosaurs liked this place and returned to it repeatedly to lay their eggs." It's also the oldest evidence in the fossil record for a highly organized nest, with eggs carefully laid in a single layer. Reisz and co-author David Evans, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, are shown here standing next to a nest in plaster at the site. Plaster protects the excavated nest, just like the broken bone in a human. The plaster cover is later removed in the lab for research. Reisz said clues about the nest are difficult to interpret, but what's known so far is that "the nests seem to be fairly shallow because all the eggs are in one layer," he said. "We do not know if the nests were covered by vegetation or if they were buried because the nature of the sediments preclude the preservation of plant fossil remains. It is quite possible that the mother guarded the nests." Nest guarding today is fairly common among living reptiles, such as crocodiles. It's also now known "that the hatchlings stayed around the nesting area long enough to at least grow to double in size."
NEWS: Nest Full of Baby Dinosaurs Found
Adult Massospondylus Skull, Complete Embryo This photo compares the size of the skull of an adult next to the skeleton of an entire tiny embryo. The researchers believe each Massospondylus mother laid a lot of small eggs, at least 35, which was a probable survival strategy. "There were large and small meat-eating theropod dinosaurs around at the time Massospondylus lived,” Evans told Discovery News. "The smaller, more agile predator called Coelophysis, was much smaller than adult Massospondylus, but would have been a threat to the hatchlings and juveniles." So far, the researchers have found 10 dinosaur nests at the site, but they suspect many more are still embedded within the South African cliff. They predict many other nests will be eroded out in time, as the natural weathering process continues.
Dinosaur Embryo Close-Up This close-up of a Massospondylus embryonic skeleton reveals that the head was pushed out of the egg after death. The scientists suspect gases produced by decay caused this to happen. They also think the site was so well preserved because the dinosaur moms chose to lay their eggs in what was then, back in the Early Jurassic Period, a wet spot at the edge of a river. Reisz explained, "Periodically there was an unusually wet season and this area was flooded, drowning the unhatched eggs and embryos, and covering the nests with very fine sediment. Yet this turned out not to be such a horrible disaster for paleontologists." South Africa appears to have been a hotspot for Massospondylus, with other possible nesting sites for this dinosaur probably in existence. So far, however, the one at Golden Gate Highlands National Park is the only nursery to yield complete clutches, with eggs containing embryos, Evans said. He added that similar evidence for large-scale nesting among dinosaurs exists, for dinos such as duck bills and sauropods, but that evidence is about 100 million years younger than this South African site.
NEWS: Dino-Era Disaster: Multiple Drowned Toothy Birds
Baby Dinosaur Handprint The discovery provides the world's oldest clear evidence for baby dinosaur footprints at a nesting site. The handprint seen here, as well as the other excavated baby prints, indicates that the infants stayed near the nest site after hatching and walked on all four limbs at first. Reisz said, "The overall body shape of the hatchlings with a large, toothless head, relatively long neck, and general look of helplessness suggests that parental care was very likely in Massospondylus. We think that the mother may have guarded the nest and the hatchlings, but may have also fed the babies with plant material." The paleontologists are now in the process of testing this hypothesis by preparing more embryos from different nests, to see if any of them have teeth. This ongoing research would be the first study of different embryological stages in a dinosaur.
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A new dinosaur from Portugal is Europe’s largest-ever terrestrial predator and was the biggest carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic Period, according to paleontologists who studied its remains.
The dinosaur, named Torvosaurus gurneyi, measured close to 33 feet long and weighed over 2,200 pounds, according to a paper in the latest PLoS ONE. The predator was at the top of Europe’s terrestrial food chain roughly 150 million years ago.
“The fauna of what is now Portugal was extremely diverse in the Late Jurassic,” paleontologist Octavio Mateus of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “This new species of carnivorous dinosaur is adding a little more (to the) diversity of dinosaurs of Portugal.
He added that the dinosaur lived at a time “when the Atlantic was well formed and Europe was an archipelago.”
Fossils for the dinosaur were found north of what is now Lisbon. The upper jaw retains eleven of the dinosaur’s teeth, each of which measures about 4 inches long.
The new dinosaur is the second known kind of Torvosaurus and is the European equivalent of Torvosaurus tanneri from North America. Both species were discovered in rocks of the same geological age and lived in similar environments dominated by dinosaurs. Both might have been covered with proto-feathers, and both belonged to a two-legged dino group that gave rise to birds.
The Portuguese dinosaur was a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex[/i, and had more teeth than T. tanneri. T. rex still retains its “King of the Dinosaur Predators” title, though, as it was larger than both of the Torvosaurus beasts. (The most complete skeleton for a T. rex suggests it grew to about 40 feet long.)
Paleontologist and co-author Christophe Hendrickx, also of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, said, of the new Portuguese dino, “This is not the largest predatory dinosaur we know. Tyrannosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Giganotosaurus from the Cretaceous were bigger animals.”
He added that its skull was close to 4 feet long, and that the Portuguese dinosaur feasted on other dinosaurs, sinking its many blade sharp teeth into their bodies.
Hendrickx explained that the new dinosaur’s name honors artist James Gurney, creator and illustrator of the Dinotopia book series.
“I always admired the reconstruction of this utopian world where dinosaurs and humans live together,” Hendrickx said. “(Gurney) is also an excellent photographer and pedagogue.”
Artwork by Sergey Krasovskiy