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Meet the Prehistoric Parents

This article first appeared in the 5/8/20 edition of the Davis Enterprise

Meet the Prehistoric Parents

Unnamed oviraptorid skeleton and eggs in the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. Photo by Eve Kröcher, permission for use under GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and Creative Commons (CC).

Meet the Prehistoric Parents

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Were dinosaurs really thoughtless, vicious creatures, or did they have a softer side?  Recent fossil finds suggest some dinosuars cared for their eggs and nests, and even some evidence of continued parental care.  Some of the best examples of dinosaur parenting are Maiasaura, Oviraptor, and Oryctodromeus, and they all had different methods of caring for thier young.

Maiasaura was first described in 1978, with the famous "Egg Moutain" discovery happening the following year.  The discovery was huge in the scientific community becuase it was one of the first evidence of dinosaur nest sites and parenting in the world!  At the site there were dozens of nests, each with 30-40 eggs.  Because Maiasaura was so big, it likely didn't sit on their nest, but instead covered them with vegitation to keep them warm, much like modern crocodiles and alligators.  But how does this suggest parental care, and not just a buried nest?  In many of the nests that had hatchlings, the egg shells were not just cracked from hatching, but also broken up from trampling, which suggests the hatchlings stayed in the nest for a while.  If hatchlings stayed in the nest for an extended period, they would need food brought to them and protection.  Another big discovery at "Egg Mountain" was of the different ages of the dinosaurs.  Some 200 individuals have been identified at the site, ranging from the hatchlings in the next, to adult, and varying sizes and ages in between.  The range in ages suggest that Maiasaura stayed with and were cared for by adults in family units or a full herd.

When Oviraptor was first discovered in 1923, it was found on top of a pile of eggs.  The eggs were similar size and shape of those associated with Protoceratops, so it was thought that Oviraptor stole and ate eggs.  Further study has shown that the eggs from the original discovery likely belonged to Oviraptor and it was an individual sitting on its nest.  With more evidence of theropod dinosuars having feathers, brooding behavior wouldn't be too much of a stretch.  Oviraptor wasn't huge, about as tall as a turkey, and about 6 feet long.  It likely weighed less than 100lbs, so sitting on a nest to incubate them would not have crushed the eggs, and its feather covering would have filled in any gaps around the nest.

A more recently discovered dinsaur, Oryctodromeus was first found and described in 2007.  What makes this dinosaur so unique is that it is the first known dinosaur to have liked in burrows.  The first three that were discovered were one adult, a just about 7 feet long, and two smaller individuals that were about 50-60% of the adult's size.  The two smaller individual's also had less skeletally mature bones than the adult indicating they were juvinilles and not just smaller adults.  The size of the juvinilles suggests extended parental care, and the burrow would be an excellent place to keep them safe from predators while they grew.

Dinosaurs may not have been the mindless eating machines science fiction has made them out to be.  Many more species than just the ones mentioned here have shown nest care and juvinilles alongside adults.  Paleontologists continue to study dinosaur eggs and nests, looking at porosity and how dinosaurs grew after hatching to help us look at these extinct creatures and maybe understand them a little bit more.

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