From National Geographic News (spotted by our own Matthew Cobb) comes this amazing discovery: a nest of 15 babies of a dinosaur related to Triceratops. The nest, about 75 million years old contains juvenile Protoceratops andrewsi, and was found in Mongolia. Here’s the parent:
This is a small dinosaur, about 1.5-2 meters long as an adult and weighing roughly 400 pounds. It has the characteristic neck frill of the group, a feature whose function is unknown. Wikipedia suggests the trait could have been for protection from predators (this species was herbivorous), to anchor neck muscles, or to “impress other members of the species” (I presume this is sexual selection, but in that case the neck frill would be larger in males and one should see sexual dimorphism in fossil adults), or a combination of these.
The high concentration of individuals in some areas has suggested that they might have lived in herds.
And the nest, which is 0.7 m (2.3 feet) wide:
The presence of all these babies together suggests to one of the discoverers, David Fastovsky, that there was parental care. Since these aren’t newborns—they’re estimated at about a year old—I can’t imagine what other explanation there could be, unless baby dinos stayed together in the nest without parents for a year.
All the babies are facing the same way, suggesting to Fastovsky that they died in a sandstorm, facing away from the wind. If that was the case, they could have been covered by an encroaching dune.
And a beaked baby:
National Geographic adds:
Another fossil discovered in the same region shows an adult Protoceratops and a velociraptor locked in an apparent death grip. “So you have two stunning examples of dinosaur behavior frozen for us to see some 75 million years later,” Fastovsky said.
It’s likely that velociraptors preyed on Protoceratops young, he added: “The desert environment where they lived just had to be hard, and possibly there were relatively high mortality rates.”
I’m no paleontologist, and the people who discovered these are, but I’m still curious how herds of large herbivores could have survived in the desert, and whether the area might have been more lush than the article portrays.