For years, scientists have been curious about the link between modern birds and dinosaurs. The two have similar bone structures, and some examples of dinosaurs with primordial feathers have been found in recent years. Another exciting discovery has come to light, further connecting birds to their dinosaur ancestors.
In Ganzhou, an area in southern China, ‘Baby Yingliang’ was discovered in Late Cretaceous rocks. These rocks are thought to be anywhere from 72 to 66 million years old, which is relatively recent in the grander scheme of things.
‘Baby Yingliang’ is an oviraptorosaur. Oviraptorosaurs are toothless theropod dinosaurs. Most examples of theropods are bipedal, similar to birds, and they tend to be on the smaller side. The indication that ‘Baby Yingliang’ is toothless is also exciting, as it creates another connection – a beak. Oviraptorosaurs are some of the feathered dinosaurs that have been discovered in the past. They have variable beak shapes and sizes, indicating that they can have a varied diet, allowing them to be herbivorous, omnivorous, or carnivorous, much like modern birds.
This is not where the amazing discoveries end, though. This is the most complete example of a dinosaur embryo that’s ever been found. It’s allowing scientists to get a glimpse of something they’ve never seen before – the positioning of the embryo inside of the egg.
This fossil has given paleontologists a peek at one of the most concrete connections between dinosaurs and birds yet. Inside the egg, ‘Baby Yingliang’ has a head that lies below the body, with feet on either side. The back of the dinosaur is also curved against the blunt end of the egg. This is something unique among the other specimens of dinosaur embryos that have been found up to this point.
When you compare ‘Baby Yingliang’ to modern bird embryos, the similarities are stunning. This embryonic behavior is known as ‘tucking.’ In birds, it is a behavior that’s controlled by the central nervous system. Without it, birds wouldn’t be able to hatch successfully. Seeing a dinosaur embryo so close to hatching in the same position shows scientists that birds are very likely the direct descendents of dinosaurs.
Thanks to studies of the egg and embryo, researchers have concluded that pre-hatching behavior may have originated among non-avian theropods. This is something that’s never been concluded before, and it only goes to show that there are discoveries still to be made.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the discovery is the condition of the fossil itself. When looking at images of ‘Baby Yingliang’, it’s clear that the articulation of the fossil hasn’t changed much due to the actual fossilization process. This indicates that the egg, and the embryo, were fossilized together. Other fossil specimens that have been found in the past are articulated in ways that are almost entirely unnatural.
According to Fion Waisum Ma, a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, dinosaur embryos are the rarest fossils in the paleontology world. She states that most of them are found incomplete, with a majority of the bones dislocated.
“We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’—it is preserved in a great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it,” said Fion Waisum Ma. She goes on to note that the similarities between ‘Baby Yingliang’ and a chicken embryo are very similar, making the discovery even more exciting.
Thanks to the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’, our understanding of these prehistoric creatures is able to deepen further. At first, it was believed that the pre-hatching behavior of ‘tucking’ originated in some of the first modern birds. By looking at this newly discovered embryo, the previously discovered sauropod embryos, and modern bird embryos, it’s clear to see that tucking likely started with theropods.
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While the connection may seem obvious, science is a discipline of repeated results. In order to fully confirm this finding, and solidify the link like never before, other embryonic examples would need to be discovered. Until then, we can look at ‘Baby Yingliang’ with wonder and admiration. It truly is one of the most remarkable fossils to have ever been discovered.