When a tiny embryonic dinosaur that died some 90 million years ago was featured on the front of a National Geographic magazine in 1996, it suddenly became known the world over. It now turns out that the embryo, dubbed “Baby Louie”, belongs to an entirely new species of giant bird-like dinosaur.
The fossil was identified as being that of a type of oviraptorosaur, a theropod dinosaur that would have been coated in feathers and sported an impressive beak. Although no fossil bones of the adults have been found, the researchers have been able to estimate that they weighed up to a staggering 2.7 tonnes (3 tons), which would make them the largest species of dinosaur known to incubate eggs and care for its young.
“Thanks to this fossil, we now know that these eggs were laid by a gigantic oviraptorosaur, a dinosaur that would have looked a lot like an overgrown cassowary,” explains Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, who helped describe the new species in Nature Communications, in a statement. “It would have been a sight to behold with a three ton animal like this sitting on its nest of eggs.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of dinosaur eggs dating to the Cretaceous were discovered by local farmers in China, with many of them exported for international sales, until the country clamped down on the practice. Baby Louie was among these that were sold, and it would be two decades before the tiny embryo and half a dozen associated eggs made their way back to their country of origin.
Now that the eggs – and the tiny embryos associated with them – have been returned to China, researchers have finally been able to properly analyze them. It turns out that they may once have belonged to an entirely new species, called Beibeilong sinensis, which translates to “Chinese baby dragon”.
The eggs, measuring 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) long and weighing at the time around 5 kilograms (11 pounds), are some of the largest dinosaur eggs ever discovered. This gave the researchers a hint that they were the young of a big beast, and comparisons with other eggs from known species meant they could describe the famous fossil as being a new species of giant oviraptor.
Fossil eggs similar to that of Baby Louie's, which are collectively known as Macroelongatoolithus, dating to the Late Cretaceous have been found throughout much of China, Korea, Mongolia, and North America. The researchers therefore suspect that the giant oviraptors were quite common during this period, despite the fact that very few fossil bones from adults have been discovered.
Image in text: Illustration of what "Baby Louie" might have looked like within the egg. Vladimir Rimbala/Hanyong Pu et al. 2017