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Planet Earth

Not a Raptor--a Caring Mom

By Carl ZimmerJanuary 1, 1997 6:00 AM

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Few animals have experienced such a dramatic rehabilitation as the dinosaur Oviraptor. Its name means egg thief, which paleontologists working in Mongolia in the 1920s gave to fossils of this slender, two- legged creature that were resting by a nest of eggs--eggs the paleontologists assumed the dinosaur must have been devouring. In 1993, though, a team of American and Mongolian paleontologists found another of these eggs (they have a distinctive shape and microscopic structure), but this one was split open. Inside was a curled embryo--of an Oviraptor. Even more proof of Oviraptor’s nurturing side came in December 1995 and last April, when two teams independently reported finding skeletons of Oviraptor in Mongolia sitting on their nests. Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, codiscoverer of the fossil at right, thinks the gentle dinos were actually brooding over their eggs like birds, their close relatives. The pelvis is right in the middle of the nest, as in birds, and the arms are perfectly wrapped around the nest, which is identical to how birds keep their wings, he explains. The texture of the sandstone rocks in which the fossils were found suggests to Norell that the nesting parents were engulfed in a sudden desert sandstorm, one they were either too slow or too devoted to flee. As a result, he says, their nesting behavior was preserved for 80 million years.

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