A dinosaur fossil that was poached from Mongolia belonged to a duck-like dinosaur that had the rare ability of being able to live on both land and water.
An illustration of Halszkaraptor escuilliei [Image by Lukas Panzarin and Andrea Cau]
If it looks like a duck and hunts like a duck, is it a duck? In some cases, it can also actually be a dinosaur that was related to the Velociraptor. This prehistoric animal had a long neck like a swan, a bill that resembled that of a duck, flippers that allowed it to transition from land to water and back, and Velociraptor-like claws on its feet. The fossilized remains stayed on the black market for years, and since the dinosaur looked so strange, scientists even thought that it was nothing more than a very good fake.
However, it turned out to be a true-blue dinosaur called Halszkaraptor escuilliei, a theropod that lived 71 to 75 million years ago in the late Cretaceous in what is now Mongolia.
The fossil [Photo by P. Jayet for ESRF]
“What is very special about it is that it looks very weird,” said Vincent Fernandez, one of the researchers that wrote a study on the creature. “It doesn’t look like any other dinosaur that we know so far.” Fernandez also says that the dinosaur was probably able not only to run on land, but also to go into the water and even hunt fish. Researchers say that the dinosaur’s face was quite sensitive, making it possible to hunt for prey in murky waters. It also had small teeth that curved backward, which likely helped the dinosaur catch and trap small fish.
The Mongolia of the late Cretaceous looked much like the Egyptian Nile valley, with lakes and rivers flowing through a dry, sandy tableau. The amphibious dinosaur was likely able to make the most of the entire landscape.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just the dinosaur, which was about the size of a mallard, that was odd. Its origins made quite a story as well. The fossilized remains, which was almost completely intact, probably remained stuck in rock for millions of years. Sometime in the more recent past, however, it was dug up by poachers, likely in southern Mongolia. It then spent years in private collections, until it came into the hands of scientists. The fossil’s most recent owner, fossil collector François Escuillié, is reportedly returning the remains to Mongolia.
This dinosaur was actually quite small [Photo by P. Jayet for ESRF]
Researchers confirm that the fossil is indeed a single intact dinosaur, and not a chimeric collection of parts from other dinosaurs, by using a particle accelerator called a synchrotron. The synchrotron produces radiation, which is instrumental in the research team’s high-resolution scanning technique. Using this technique, the researchers were able to analyze the fossilized remains without needing to extract it from the rock.
Not only does this dinosaur represent one new species, it also represents an entire new sub-family of dinosaurs. This discovery has allowed scientists to recognize two other unusual dinosaur species as part of this sub-family.
However, other scientists aren’t quite convinced that the dinosaur was semiaquatic. The fossil’s history in the black market was called into question, since poachers can’t be trusted not to tamper with fossils. Thus, though the fossil is likely genuine, scientists say that there is a need for more compelling evidence that the dinosaur did indeed live on both land and water.
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