Workers in China made an unexpected discovery of fossils of a rare bird-like dinosaur providing insights on how at least one family of dinosaurs was still flourishing just before the mass extinction 66 million years ago.
The dinosaur, which as now been named ‘Mud Dragon’, was preserved almost intact found lying on its front with its wings and neck outstretched. The fossil remains remarkably well preserved and almost complete, despite some harm caused by a dynamite blast at the construction site. The skeleton was found during excavations using explosives at a school construction site near Ganzhou.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and China, who carried out the study, say the finding helps better understand how the last-surviving dinosaurs were flourishing before tragedy struck. The team has named the new species Tongtianlong limosus, meaning ‘muddy dragon on the road to heaven’.
Scientists speculate that the creature may have died in this pose after becoming mired in mud about 66-72 million years ago. The two-legged animal belongs to a family of feathered dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs, characterised by having short, toothless heads and sharp beaks. Some, including the newly found species, had crests of bone on their heads that were probably used as display structures to attract mates and intimidate rivals, like modern-day cassowaries.
Fossil discoveries in recent decades suggest that this group of flightless animals was experiencing a population boost, diversifying into new species, during the 15 million years before the dinosaurs went extinct. The group was probably one of the last groups of dinosaurs to diversify before the asteroid impact 66 million years ago, which killed off all of the non-bird dinosaurs.
“This new dinosaur is one of the most beautiful, but saddest, fossils I’ve ever seen. But we’re lucky that the ‘Mud Dragon’ got stuck in the muck, because its skeleton is one of the best examples of a dinosaur that was flourishing during those final few million years before the asteroid came down and changed the world in an instant”, said Dr Steve Brusatte, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh.