Two teams of paleontologists were each puzzling over unusual, but incomplete, fossil skeletons of an animal they couldn’t identify, when they finally met and realized that they were all looking at different parts of the same dinosaur.
And the dinosaur they’d found was the biggest of its kind on the continent.
Their collaboration — which brought together the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the University of Utah — resulted in the discovery of a giant crested bird-like dinosaur that the experts liken variously to an outsized cassowary, or a “chicken from hell.”
Measuring 3 meters tall and 3.5 meters from its beak to the tip of its likely-feathered tail, the newfound dino is the largest oviraptorosaur yet identified in North America.
Oviraptorosaurs include some of the most bird-like of the non-avian dinosaurs, having sported feathers and beaks, and ranging in scale from the turkey-sized Caudipteryx to the earth-shaking Gigantoraptor.
But almost all of these dinosaurs have been found in Asia, their sparse North American record having been pieced together through fragments from many different specimens.
The newly discovered American genus — named Anzu for a Mesopotamian bird-demon — may open up a new chapter in our understanding of this type of dinosaur, the researchers said.
“Anzu provides our first good look at an entire group of weird dinosaurs that had been shrouded in mystery for nearly a century,” said the Carnegie’s Dr. Matthew Lamanna, in a statement.
Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, of the Smithsonian, agreed. “For almost a hundred years, the presence of oviraptosaurs in North America was only known from a few bits of skeleton, and the details of their appearance and biology remained a mystery,” he said.
“With the discovery of Anzu, we finally have the fossil evidence to show what this species looked like and how it is related to other dinosaurs.”
Based on three separate specimens, each found in ancient mudstone in southwestern North Dakota and northern South Dakota, Anzu appears to have dwelled on the floodplains of the island continent that was Laramidia some 66 million years ago.
This also makes the bird-like giant one of the most geologically recent oviraptorosaurs ever found, having likely lived right up until the mass extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. [Read about a similar species recently discovered in Texas: “New Feathered Dinosaur Discovered in Texas’ Big Bend National Park“] Judging by its large claws and powerful but toothless beak, the researchers suspect Anzu ate small animals and plants but was still no stranger to conflict.
“Two of the specimens display evidence of pathology,” said University of Utah biologist Emma Schachner, who collaborated on the research.
“One appears to have a broken and healed rib, and the other has evidence of some sort of trauma to a toe.”
Schachner had helped Smithsonian collaborator Tyler Lyson excavate one of the specimens near Marmarth, North Dakota, she said, while the other two had been sitting in private collections.
When Schachner and Lyson met Lamanna at a conference in 2005, they soon realized they were all studying different specimens of the same species.
The team reports their find in the open-access online journal PLoS ONE.
Matthew Lamanna et al. (2014). A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Western North America PLOS ONE