New Dinosaur Named After Decades Of Mistaken Identity

A paleoartist's impression of the ancient beast. Sydney Mohr

Paleontologists don’t always stumble across new dinosaur discoveries in the field. Just recently, a dinosaur kept in a museum was reexamined, and researchers discovered it had a record number of non-fatal injuries. Evidence of one of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered was found in a museum drawer. In one instance, a fossilized raptor fell out of a cliff on to two people simply passing by.

Now, another paleontologist has had a similar stroke of luck: A specimen sitting on a shelf at the Royal Tyrrel Museum in Alberta, Canada was being dusted off as part of a 25th-anniversary exhibit when the intrepid researcher realized it had been misidentified.

It has now been confirmed to be a type of raptor, and in honor of its long-held disguise, it has been named Apatoraptor pennatus – roughly meaning “feathered deceptive thief.” The fragment Apato comes from the word “Apate,” the name of an evil spirit released from Pandora’s Box in Greek mythology considered the epitome of deceit.

“This is my first time naming a new dinosaur,” Greg Funston, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “It’s really exciting on a personal level, but what I am most excited about is what it means for this field of paleontology. In future studies, it will help us to better understand these dinosaurs. It’s a really important specimen.”

Feather quill indentations on the right forelimb. Funston & Currie./Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

As the study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology reveals, the specimen, which is beautifully articulated (in one piece, essentially), was long thought to be an Ornithomimid, an “ostrich-like” dinosaur. Although not as closely related to birds as the Dromaeosauridae – the family that includes the famous Velociraptor – were, they still belonged to the same evolutionary group that includes modern-day birds, the Coelurosauria.

After its reexamination, however, it turns out that it is indeed a type of agile raptor after all. With a specialized parrot-like beak, a long neck, short tails, and feathers – identified by pit-like scars on its arms – this beast was in fact a member of the Caenagnathidae family of bird-like dinosaurs. The fact that it’s the world’s first fully articulated member of this family means that paleontologists can now use it to learn so much about a family they know so little about.

The feathers on its arms were not used to fly. Like many other types of raptor, they were likely used to regulate its internal body temperature (in a process known as thermoregulation) or, as the authors of the study posit, they were used for sexual displays.

“Oviraptorosaurs, the bigger group to which Apatoraptor and other caenagnathids belong, were probably some of the flashiest dinosaurs. We know of three separate ways – head crests, tail feathers and now arm feathers – that they would display to their mates,” said Funston.

This critter was originally found in a geological formation that dates back to the Late Cretaceous (100.5 to 66 million years ago), the final chapter for the non-avian dinosaurs. Recent research has revealed that dinosaurs were already on their way out by this point, even before the asteroid impact finished them off.

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