Please, if you’re blowing up the side of a mountain or part of a quarry, double check you haven’t got any dinosaurs laying around. Fossils are rather wonderful, fragile things, and they won’t stand up too well against the awesome power of dynamite.
Such an unfortunate fate almost took hold of a newly discovered dinosaur found buried beneath a Chinese construction site. Although parts of the 72-million-year-old fossil were in fact blasted to kingdom come, the workers decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea to continue without contacting some paleontologists.
That they did. As a rather splendid study in the journal Scientific Reports describes, the new creature represents one of the last flurries of evolution for the dinosaurs before almost all of them were wiped out by an asteroid, a lot of fiery volcanism, and the rise of mammals.
It’s been named Tongtianlong limosus, which means “muddy dragon on the road to heaven”. It was found preserved in ancient mud, with its limbs splayed and its winged forearms spread out across the ground. It would have had a snubbed, toothless, beak-like mouth, a small head crest, and a parrot-like skull. It was roughly the size of a sheep, and likely had an omnivorous diet.
“It's part of a group of very advanced bird-like, feathered dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs,” Dr Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told BBC News.
The fossil in all its wonky glory. Lu et al./Scientific Reports
The oviraptorosaurs first emerged during the Cretaceous Period, the twilight chapter in the age of the dinosaurs. They ranged greatly in habitat, diet and size, with some being roughly proportional to a turkey, and others – like the appropriately-named Gigantoraptor, which was 8 meters (26 feet) long and weighed around 1.3 tonnes (1.4 tons).
They belonged to the overarching group Maniraptora, which gave rise to both flying dinosaurs and their contemporary descendants, birds.
“Modern birds came from dinosaurs,” Brusatte said, “and it’s dinosaurs like Tongtianlong that give us a glimpse of what the ancestors of modern birds would have looked like.”