Duck-Like Dinosaur Is Cute and Menacing All at the Same Time—And We're a Little Creeped Out

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On December 6, some unusual findings were published in Nature, The International Journal of Science. These findings—a particular set of unearthed skeleton fossils—were impeccable, considering they are likely from 71 to 75 million years ago.

Interestingly, these fossils were not initially discovered by researchers. Poachers dug up these fossils somewhat recently, smuggling them out of Mongolia and likely through China into the fossil markets of Europe. As Mongolia is the origin of over five percent of all known dinosaur species, and quite remote in location, it has served as a hotspot for the fossil poaching market.

Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, and a co-author of the study published in Nature, explained, “We were seeing specimens basically destroyed by people who had no sympathy for the scientific value of these specimens, let alone the display value or attracting tourism.”

In this case, this never-before-seen dinosaur discovered in Mongolia is apparently a remnant from the late Cretaceous period. It bore semi-aquatic features, never before seen in dinosaurs. Because this skeleton is so unique, it even establishes a new subfamily of dinosaurs.

It is worth noting that many other fossil specimens from the same region do meet criteria of this family. They are therefore part of the same branch of the evolutionary tree, though not in the newly-established subfamily.

Reconstruction of the amphibious bird-like dinosaur Halszkaraptor. The fossil is named for Polish paleontologist Halszka Osmólska, who discovered one of the dinosaur's closest known relatives. (Lukas Panzarin/National Geographic)

With a neck similar to that of a goose, wings like those of penguins and sharp claws like those of velociraptors, this particular bird-like incarnation is an entirely unique find. This is at least true for dinosaurs, though it is long-established that some birds live in manners unseen in the dinosaur kingdom — like ducks, swans or geese, all of which switch between land and water habitats.

This newly-discovered dinosaur is called Halszkaraptor escuilliei, and according to an email from paleontologist at the Giovanni Capellini Geological Museum at the University of Bologna, Andrea Cau, “This is the first dinosaur with a lifestyle similar to aquatic birds — this indicates that these dinosaurs were able to exploit an environment that was not considered in our previous interpretation of dinosaur history.”

The paper published in Nature expands upon this discovery, illustrating “how much of the diversity of Dinosauria remains undiscovered, even in intensely studied regions such as Mongolia.”

In order to publish this paper, researchers used new scanning technology, which Cau, who is also the study’s lead author, described as “the most advanced scanning technology ever done on a fossil.” The researchers used this to gather about 6,000 gigabytes of data on the fossil while it remained partially embedded in the rock matrix, or the finer-grained accumulation of material in which larger grains are rooted.

Of course, research on something so old is hardly perfect; though the fossil reveals many semi-aquatic features—or rather, features that appear semi-aquatic—this still opens the possibility of new varieties of creatures never before suspected. The mosaic of features revealed in Halszkaraptor escuilliei are mostly absent in non-avian maniraptorans, but present in reptilian and avian groups with some aquatic or semi-aquatic ecologies.

According to the research paper, this lineage adds an amphibious ecomorphology to those evolved by maniraptorans — in layman’s terms, an extended goose-like neck and rows of teeth for food procurement, bipedalism for swimming and short-tailed birdlike posture. It likely fed on fish, crustaceans and small reptiles and mammals.

Unexpectedly, instead of webbed feet, Halszkaraptor escuilliei had both claws and toes, much like velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus rex.

Other members of this subfamily would have been sized similarly to this creature, which is about the size of a turkey, though none have yet been discovered!

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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