This is one the most stunning fossils I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an almost perfectly preserved dinosaur embryo that somehow died in the egg during the Late Cretaceous (100 mya-66mya). It’s not just amazing for its preservation, but also for the posture of the unhatched embryo, which resembles the posture that modern bird embryos (an also early birds themselves) assume soon before hatching. The inference is that the behaviors that precede hatching in birds, and help them through the tough process of getting out of the egg, actually evolved from their reptilian ancestors—the theropod dinosaurs, of which this specimen is one.
The paper appears in iScience and is free; click on the screenshot below or get the pdf here.
I’ve really conveyed the gist of the paper in the first paragraph above, but you need to see this embryo! Click to enlarge; all the photos are high-resolution
The specimen is given the number YLSNHM01266, and is described as a “new non-avian theropod dinosaur embryo. . . from the Late Cretaceous Hekou Formation of southern China.” No species name is given because without a fossil of an adult in the vicinity, we have no idea. We can tell, however, that it is a theropod dinosaur, and an “oviraptorid oviraptorosaur“.
Oviraptors constitute is a group of theropod dinosaurs of varying sizes, which lived in what is now North America and Asia. Fossils show that they had feathers, parrot-like beak mandibles, sometimes bony crests on the head, and walked on their hind legs. Paleontological analysis combined with phylogeny shows, as Wikipedia notes, that they are “close to the ancestry of birds.” (The ancestor of birds is thought by most but not all paleontologists to be theropod dinosaurs.)
Here’s a group of diverse ovoraptors from Wikipedia. You can see that their skeletons are more birdlike than those of other dinosaurs. Some scientists, indeed, group them with birds! Four species have been found with feather impressions, so it’s likely that the group (including the baby above) had feathers, but couldn’t fly. Maybe one of the species below is the adult that would have developed from the juvenile above!
Back to the fossil. Here’s part of a later figure that helps you make sense of what’s what in the photos above. The air cell, also present in modern bird eggs, is to the right between the embryo and the shell.
If you want the technical description of the posture, here it is from the paper. I’ve bolded the important parts.
The articulated embryonic skeleton is preserved curled inside its egg (YLSNHM01266), with the skull positioned ventral to the body (Figure 1). The egg is elongate ovoid in shape with dimensions of 16.7 cm long by 7.6 cm wide, and has characteristics typical of the egg family Elongatoolithidae (see STAR Methods for eggshell analysis). The skeleton is almost complete, without much apparent postmortem disruption. The anterior surface of the skull faces toward the pointed pole and is situated about egg mid-length at the level of the ilium in-between the flexed hindlimbs, with a pes [foot] on either side. The anterior cervical vertebrae are in line with the long axis of the skull. The presacral vertebral column is strongly bent in an angular manner, so that the upper back of the embryo faces the blunt pole of the egg (similar flexion of the vertebral column is found in modern in ovo skeletons, e.g. Balanoff and Rowe, 2007: Figure 4, Day 18, and is not likely to be a taphonomic artifact). The skeleton is ∼23.5 cm in total length, measured from the anterior tip of the skull to the last preserved caudal vertebra, and occupies nearly the entire width of the egg and most of the length, with the exception of a ∼1.9 cm space between the dorsal vertebrae and the blunt pole of the egg. This space may represent the air cell, a space usually found between the back of the embryo and the blunt pole of bird eggs (e.g., Rahn et al., 1979). However, this inference is tentative and awaits further evidence. The posterodorsal, sacral and caudal vertebrae almost form a straight line along the long axis of the egg. Although the precise developmental stage of the embryo is unclear, it is likely to represent a late-stage embryo because the skeleton is well ossified and is large in size relative to the space inside the egg, as inferred in MPC 100/971 (Norell et al., 2001).
Note that the specimen is 23.5 cm, or a bit more than nine inches long: as long as a dollar bill and half of another one (American dollar bills are almost exactly 6 inches long, and can be used for emergency measurements).
When modern birds hatch, they assume this position as the first of three stages prior to hatching: “pre-tucking”, “tucking” and “posttucking” (we know this clearly because, sadly, many pre-hatched birds have been dissected from the egg). I won’t go through the complicated description of the changes in posture, but here’s how it happens in a chicken, with the fetal dinosaur placed between “pretucking” and “tucking”. “Membrane penetration” is when the bird uses its bill to get out of the membrane in which the embryo is enclosed, and “pipping” is when it begins to peck through the shell (often a long process).
Apparently birds always tuck their heads below their right wing, not their left, before pipping. How they know left from right (genetically) is beyond me; but somehow this asymmetry is coded in the DNA:
And here are three examples of embryonic oviraptors compared to a modern bird (chicken) at the assumed similar stages:
Now the authors are very careful not to overinterpret a single fossil, but I do think it’s likely that the oviraptor fossils show that their pre-hatching positions and behavior was passed on to birds, as oviraptors are phylogenetically close to the ancestor of birds (though we don’t know whether the ancestor of birds was an oviraptor).
The only question remaining is: do all dinosaur embryos—not just those closely related to the ancestor of modern birds—show similar embryonic behavior? The answer is, as usual, we just don’t know. There’s a severe shortage of well-preserved dinosaur embryos, as you might imagine One specimen of a sauropod, a distant relative, seems to show a different fetal posture than the ones above.
I hope we can find more fossil embryos, because, although behavior doesn’t fossilize, the correlates of behavior—represented by the posture of embryos—do. In that sense the way modern birds hatch might what some systematists call a synapomorphy: a character shared by two species (or groups) because it was present in an ancestor—in this case the common ancestor of the ovoraptors and modern birds. And it’s surely an adaptive synapomorphy, because birds that can’t get out of the shell don’t leave any genes behind.
Xing, L. et al. 2021. An exquisitely preserved in-ovo theropod dinosaur embryo sheds light on avian-like prehatching postures. iScience, in press.