In a humid, tropical jungle in southern China aeons ago, a bird-like dinosaur with a toothless beak and dome-shaped crest atop its head became trapped in mud, struggled in vain to escape and died.
Workmen blasting bedrock while building a school near the city of Ganzhou unearthed a beautifully preserved fossil of the roughly 6.5-foot-long (2 meter) dinosaur, nicknamed the “Mud Dragon,” still in that contorted position.
Palaeontologist Steve Brusatte of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, who worked on the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, said the fossil adds to the understanding of dinosaur evolution on the eve of destruction.
“We call the new dinosaur Tongtianlong,” he said. That’s the formal scientific name and that comes from a few different Chinese words that mean ‘muddy dragon the road to heaven’.”
The Cretaceous Period creature, called Tongtianlong limosus, lived 66 to 72 million years ago, at the twilight of the dinosaurs’ more than 160-million-year reign on Earth. It was a member of a group called oviraptorosaurs, one of the closest relatives to birds, which evolved earlier from small, feathered dinosaurs.
The discovery of Tongtianlong and five other oviraptorosaur species in southern China showed this group was still blossoming and diversifying during the last few million years before an asteroid struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs, Brusatte said.
The fossil preserved a tragic moment for posterity, with the dinosaur’s neck arched, its head sticking up, and its arms out-stretched to the sides.
Other previous dramatic fossil finds include Mongolia’s famous “fighting dinosaurs,” a Velociraptor and Protoceratops apparently locked in mortal combat when a sand dune collapsed on them.
Tongtianlong was a two-legged omnivore, with a bony crest on its short, squat skull that was probably used for display purposes to attract mates and intimidate rivals. Its arms likely had quill-like feathers layered over each other like on a wing, though it could not fly.
“Tongtianlong was about the size of a sheep, maybe a small donkey, so not a very big animal,” said Brusatte. “It was covered in feathers, just like a bird. It had wings, just like a bird, although it couldn’t fly. It was still too big to fly, it probably used its wings for display purposes, for attracting a mate and intimidating its rivals, that sort of thing. It had a beak, it didn’t have any teeth, so this was a dinosaur that didn’t eat meat like a T. Rex and it didn’t eat a lot of plants like a brontosaurus, but it looked like it had a varied diet, an omnivorous diet.”
Brusatte believes Tongtianlong would have eaten nuts, seeds, shellfish, plants, and small amounts of meat, and says its beak could have been key to its evolutionary success.
It would have lived in humid, jungle-like, conditions.