Animals

‘Baby Louie’ Solves Dinosaur Development Mysteries

A dinosaur embryo named Baby Louie and its unhatched siblings were incubated by a gigantic parent that closely resembled one of today’s most ornery birds.

A nesting gigantic cassowary-like dinosaur named Beibeilong sinensis in the act of incubating its eggs | Zhao Chuang
A nesting gigantic cassowary-like dinosaur named Beibeilong sinensis in the act of incubating its eggs | Zhao Chuang

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, farmers from Henan, China, excavated and collected thousands of Cretaceous Era dinosaur eggs, many of which were sold overseas in rock and gem shows, stores, and markets. One shipment, imported in 1993 by Colorado-based The Stone Company, included an impressive clutch of big dinosaur eggs. Even more surprising than the multiple eggs was the unveiling of a small dinosaur skeleton, nicknamed Baby Louie in recognition of Louis Psihoyos, who photographed the striking remains.

In 2001, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis acquired the specimen and put it on public exhibit for 12 years, until Baby Louie and the eggs were repatriated to China in December 2013. Baby Louie’s new home is at the Henan Geological Museum in its province of origin, and the tiny dinosaur embryo has a new identity, too.

Paleontologists have just determined that Baby Louie represents a new species of gigantic oviraptorosaur, a dinosaur that would have resembled an oversized modern cassowary. Given the scientific name Beibeilong sinensis (“Baby Dragon”), the new species and associated remains are described in the journal Nature Communications.

“Baby Louie may have been an omnivore, eating both meats and plants,” said co-author Darla Zelenitsky, a professor at the University of Calgary. “It would have had a very strong and robust, but toothless, jaw.”

Curled embryo of Beibelong sinensis on top of eggs (eggshell is dark grey in color). | Darla Zelenitsky/University of Calgary

She added that Baby Louie’s “bones are relatively well formed, so it was probably in the latter stages of incubation, closer to hatching.”

Baby Louie and the rest of its unhatched siblings were deposited by their mother around 90 million years ago into an enormous nest bigger than a monster truck tire, the researchers believe.

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The entire nest would have contained two dozen or more eggs positioned at the periphery of a giant ring configuration close to 10 feet in diameter. The eggs are about 18 inches long and weighed around 11 pounds after being laid, making them some of the largest dinosaur eggs ever discovered.

“The giant (parent) dinosaur likely sat in the middle of the nest, perhaps protecting, covering its eggs with its feathered arms and body,” Zelenitsky said. “It would have been a sight to behold with a three-ton animal like this sitting on its nest of eggs.”

Curled embryo of Beibelong sinensis on top of eggs (eggshell is dark grey in color). | Darla Zelenitsky/University of Calgary

She continued that a flood event likely disrupted this peaceful dinosaur family scene, with water and sediment covering the nest and killing the eggs. The fate of Baby Louie’s parents right after the flood remains unknown.

Had the embryos hatched, they probably would have weighed close to 9 pounds each and would have been fairly self-sufficient, the scientists suspect. As adults, the dinosaurs likely measured over 26 feet long.

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The remains of B. sinensis are a rarity today, but living representatives of this species and its relatives were commonplace during the early Late Cretaceous, the paleontologists believe. Zelenitsky explained that the eggs and eggshells for this species “are relatively common, so one would expect that the dinosaurs are common as well.”

If the non-avian dinosaur not only looked like a modern cassowary but also behaved like such a bird, then would-be predators might have faced quite a challenge. These large flightless birds put up a strong defense and usually leave others running.

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