Nov 10, 2016

Dinosaur's Slow Death Captured in 'Saddest' Fossil

The well-preserved remains of a new dinosaur nicknamed "Mud Dragon" likely freeze in time the death pose of the animal after its agonizing final breaths.

The new species, Tongtianlong limosus, meaning "muddy dragon on the road to heaven," was discovered lying in rock that formed from what was once hardened mud. The dinosaur, described in the journal Scientific Reports, appeared to have been trying to free itself from the mud, with its wings and neck outstretched.

Co-author Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of Geosciences and his colleagues believe that the unfortunate dinosaur died in the throes of this struggle about 66–72 million years ago.

"It is one of the most beautiful, but saddest fossils I've ever seen," Brusatte told Seeker, adding that if the dinosaur had not died stuck in mud "we wouldn't have this gorgeous fossil."

Tongtianlong limosus skeleton.
The two-legged dinosaur was an oviraptorosaur, referring to a family of feathered dinosaurs known for their short, toothless heads and sharp beaks. Some, such as Mud Dragon, had crests of bone on their heads that were probably used for displays to attract mates and to intimidate rivals. Birds like today's cassowaries feature such crests.

Brusatte said that the winged, yet probably flightless, dinosaur looked like a bird.

"If you saw it alive, I bet you would have just considered it to be a weird type of fairly large bird," he explained. "It was about the size of a sheep or small donkey."

Despite the dinosaur's misfortune, it is a miracle that its skeleton was found. Construction workers at a building site in the Ganzhou region of southern China were blasting the ground with dynamite in order to make way for a high school. An explosion revealed Mud Dragon, coming close to blowing it to smithereens.

In addition to the dinosaur's revealing death pose, its fossils reveal what ecosystems were like just before the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago that killed off all of the non-bird dinos.

A conservator works beside the remains of Tongtianlong limosus.
Mud Dragon is the sixth known oviraptorosaur from the late Cretaceous Period of this region in China. Although these dinosaurs were all related, each looked distinctive, strongly suggesting that the animals were diversifying — branching off into new species — and flourishing before the asteroid hit occurred.

Some researchers believe that dinosaurs were already in decline and that the asteroid just finished them off, but Brusatte said "that is a bunch of malarkey."

"Everything we see in the fossil record — particularly here in southern China — tells us dinosaurs were flourishing right up to the end," he continued. "There were a bunch of species living together, dominating ecosystems, and still forming new species right up to the final moments."

Read more at Discovery News

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