A Ducklike Dinosaur?

Dinosaurs occupied all of Earth, including the skies and waters.  Just as contemporary avian dinosaurs, ancient dinos evolved a plethora of bodies, specialized for different environments and ways of life.

This month, a team from Europe and Mongolia report on a new analysis of what appears to be a unique and weird looking aquatic dinosaur [1].  The particular specimen has an uncertain provenance, having been sold on the black market, and only recently examined by scientists [2].  Such a history screams “fake”, and the features of fossil are so unexpected that any reasonable person would assume it is phony.

However, careful examination with X-rays revealed that Halszkaraptor escuilliei is real, if unusual and, indeed mysterious. About the size of a Turkey, the specimen is clearly adapted for swimming – sort of.  Flipper like wings? Check.  Webbed feet? Nope?  Crocodile like snout? Check.

This is a reconstruction of Halszkaraptor escuilliei. The small dinosaur was a close relative of Velociraptor, but in both body shape and inferred lifestyle, it more closely recalls some water birds like modern swans. (Lukas Panzarin, with scientific supervision from Andrea Cau)

The paper offers an interesting diagram comparing the anatomy of Halszkaraptor to other animals. It seems to be partway between specialized swimmers and land animals. With only one specimen, and working only from the skeleton, it is difficult to know how to interpret this finding.

Morphometric analyses of aquatic adaptations in the Halszkaraptor forelimb. a, Binary plot of length ratios among manual digits I–III in aquatic and terrestrial sauropsids (n = 84): Halszkaraptor clusters with long-necked aquatic reptiles. b, Binary plot of principal components 2 and 3 from a morphometric analysis of ten skeletal characters of the forelimb and sternum in birds (n = 246; principal component 1 describes body size variation and is therefore not considered; see Supplementary Information): Halszkaraptor clusters with wing- propelled swimming birds. Silhouettes in a provided by D. Bonadonna and L. Panzarin.

 

This specimen is in the raptor family, which is the first aquatic raptor known. Indeed it is a rare swimming dinosaur.  Most of the dinosaur age sea life are not actually in the dinosaur family (they are related to turtles, et al.)

This study is a great example of how imaging technology is increasing the ability to understand fossil remains. Intensive but non-destructive examination made it possible to determine that this is not a fake, and to pull out details within the rock. Almost every paleontological report these days includes some form of “see through” imagery. This is a tremendous advance, and we can hope that methods will continue to improve.

(Many reports also include statistically constructed taxonomic trees, which I consider less of a boon. These family trees are as much art as science, and the visual appearance suggests far more certainty than is generally justified.)

Anyway, the dinosaur of the week is Halszkaraptor escuilliei!  (the designation “esculliel” honors the person who returned the fossil to Mongolia.)


  1. Andrea Cau, Vincent Beyrand, Dennis F. A. E. Voeten, Vincent Fernandez, Paul Tafforeau, Koen Stein, Rinchen Barsbold, Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, Philip J. Currie, and Pascal Godefroit, Synchrotron scanning reveals amphibious ecomorphology in a new clade of bird-like dinosaurs. Nature, 12/06/online 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature24679
  2. Nicholas St. Fleur, This Duck-Like Dinosaur Could Swim. That Isn’t the Strangest Thing About it., in New York Times – Trilobites. 2017: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/science/duck-dinosaur-swim.html

 

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