The fossilised remains of a bizarre, bird-like dinosaur, nicknamed the “chicken from hell” by scientists, have been unearthed in the United States.
The 66-million-year-old feathered beast would have resembled a beefed-up emu with a long neck, a metre-long tail and a tall crest on its head. At the end of its forelimbs were long, sharp claws.
The creature stood 1.5 metres high at the hip and reached more than three metres from beak to tail. Researchers believe it lived on ancient floodplains and fed on plants, small animals and possibly eggs. An adult weighed up to 300kg.
Researchers dug the remains from mudstone in the Hell Creek formation in North and South Dakota, where fossil hunters have previously excavated bones from Tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops.
Over the past decade they have recovered three partial s
keletons of the animal but until now had not recognised it as a new genus and species of a mysterious family of dinosaurs called Caenagnathidae. The fossils are being kept at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
Scientists working on the remains coined the “chicken from hell” monicker, which later influenced their choice of its more formal name, Anzu wyliei. Anzu is the name of a giant bird-like demon from ancient mythology. Wyliei comes from Wylie J Tuttle, the son of a donor who helps to fund research at the museum.
The animal belongs to a group called the oviraptorosaurs, which are mostly known from fossils found in central and east Asia but the remains provide the first detailed picture of the North American oviraptorosaurs.
Dubbed Kryptodrakon progenitor, the beast had a wingspan of 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) as it flew the Jurassic skies about 163 million years ago.
The new species gets its first name from the Latin krypto (hidden) and drakon (serpent), a nod to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was filmed in the desert where the species was discovered. Progenitor refers to its status as the oldest known pterodactyl.
Scientists first discovered fragments of Kryptodrakon’s delicate fossils in 2001 in northwestern China’s remote Shishiugou Formation. That geologic formation has been called a “dinosaur death pit” because ancient quicksand entombed so many prehistoric creatures there.
At first, Kryptodrakon’s bones were misidentified as belonging to a type of two-legged dinosaur called a theropod, said James Clark.
It wasn’t until another scientist assembled the fossil parts into a skeleton several years later that “I looked at it and said, ‘That’s not a theropod, that’s a pterosaur.’ And the rest is history,” said Clark, a biologist at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Pterodactyls are a type of pterosaur, a wider group of flying reptiles that went extinct 66 million years ago.
Because pterodactyl bones are so fragile, little is known about the origins of the ancient dinosaur relative, which eventually evolved into the biggest creature ever to take wing.
Scientists have discovered a new species of dinosaur that belonged to the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex.
The remains of the long-snouted tyrannosaur, formally named Qianzhousaurus sinensis and nicknamed Pinocchio rex, were found near the city of Ganzhou in southern China. Researchers believe the animal was a fearsome carnivore that lived more than 66 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period.
The bones were discovered on a construction site by workmen who took them to a local museum.
Experts from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and the University of Edinburgh then became involved in examining the remains.
With an elongated skull and long, narrow teeth, the predator would have looked very different from a T rex, which had thick teeth and more powerful jaws.
Palaeontologists had been uncertain about the existence of long-snouted tyrannosaurs.
Previously, just two fossilised tyrannosaurs with elongated heads had been found, and since they were juveniles it was unclear whether they were from a new class of dinosaur or simply at an early growth stage.
It is thought that Qianzhousaurus sinensis lived alongside other tyrannosaurs but would not have been in direct competition with them, since they probably hunted different prey.
Experts at the University of Edinburgh said the new specimen was of an animal nearing adulthood. It was found largely intact and “remarkably well preserved”.
Wendiceratops roamed southern Alberta around 79 million years ago, when the area was a lush lowland on the western edge of a seaway covering the middle of North America.
Parts of at least four Wendiceratops were found together, including a mix of younger and older animals. None are complete, but enough is preserved to allow a fairly detailed reconstruction of the overall anatomy.
Wendiceratops is unique among horned dinosaurs in the configuration of the forward-hooked bones studding the back of the frill. Each species has its own “fingerprint” of frill bones, so it’s pretty easy to pick out Wendiceratops from the crowd of its close relatives.
To me, it’s quite interesting that the frill of Wendiceratops is similar (but not identical) to an animal called Sinoceratops, which lived a few million years later in China. This suggests a close evolutionary relationship between the two animals.
Does it mean that Wendiceratops or one of its descendents wandered over to China from North America?
That’s certainly possible, and warrants additional study. Horned dinosaur skulls are developmentally plastic, so it’s also possible that the anatomy in Sinoceratops was independently evolved. We’ll need more fossils to figure this out!
Introducing Wendiceratops, a Spectacular New Horned Dinosaur
Skeletal reconstruction of Wendiceratops, with known bones shown in blue.
Like many of its close relatives, Wendiceratops had a big nose horn.
This in itself is not unusual, but within geological time Wendiceratops is the oldest horned dinosaur to have the feature. Paleontologists have suspected for awhile that enlarged nose horns evolved at least twice in horned dinosaurs (once in the line leading to Triceratops and once in the line leading to Wendiceratops and its relatives…and maybe a third time in the “primitive” Protoceratops).
Now we know a little more about the timing! Fossils like Wendiceratops add critical details to the broad-brush evolutionary picture.
Wendiceratops (named in honor of its discoverer, Wendy Sloboda.
This article originally appeared at PLOS Blogs and is republished here under a creative commons license. Image credits: Danielle Dufault via Evans and Ryan, 2015.