This past week, a Canadian group of paleontologists from the University of Toronto announced a rather amazing find. In the course of examining a large fossil bed in China’s Yunnan province, they discovered a series of fossilized dinosaur eggs that are apparently the oldest ever found. But it’s gets even better. Within the nest, they learned that many of these eggs had been crushed, and the remains of several dinosaur embryos perfectly preserved.
The eggs belong to the Late Jurassic, a geologic period that occurred roughly 190 million years ago. It was during this time that a group of huge, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs called Lufengosaurus gathered together at the site in China’s Yunnan province to lay clutches of softball-sized eggs. It is here that Robert Reisz, leader of the paleontologist group, and his colleagues found the rare preserved remains.
These included the crushed eggshells —the oldest dinosaur eggshells ever found — and 200 tiny bones from at least 20 Lufengosaurus embryos, including some that amazingly still appeared to have some protein attached to them. Reisz said it appears that Lufengosaurus chose a nesting site close to a river and some years the nesting site flooded, smothering the embryos. At the time of the dinosaurs, the area had a tropical climate and was likely prone to monsoons during the wet season.
In an interview, Reisz claimed that “[the] eggs were caught at different stages of development. That’s what makes this project really exciting.” It’s exciting because it allows paleontologists to examine how dinosaurs grew while still in the earliest phase of their development. And already, the returns on this discovery are proving very intriguing.
For example, by examining at the thigh bones of embryos of different ages, Reisz and his researchers found evidence that this particular species moved around inside their eggs as birds do, and similar to the way developing mammals move around inside the womb. This is the first time that phenomenon has been documented in a fossil animal, but the real breakthrough was the detection of the chemical fingerprint of a protein inside the bones.
Ordinarily, paleontologist do not expect to find any protein samples in fossils dating back this far. However, the Taiwanese members of the research team were insistent that they look for proteins using synchrotron radiation and an infrared spectrometer, which looks for the telltale chemical signatures caused by specific molecules absorbing characteristic colours of light. Given what it turned up, Reisz was happy they did!
The protein that was detected is believed likely to be collagen, a common protein found in connective tissues such as bones and tendons. Once again, the significance of this is in how it will allow future generations of researchers to examine the links between today’s species and those from previous eras. According to Reisz: “If this is collagen, then the potential for extracting collagen and comparing to those of living animals really opens a new area of research.”
And who knows? If the protein sample proves to be in good enough shape, this particular species of dinosaur might actually find itself being added to the list for de-extinction, right alongside Aurochs, Wooly Mammoths, Do Do birds, and Sabretooth Tigers. Hmm… I guess Jurassic Park isn’t as farfetched as previously thought. In fact, it could one of many geological era-themed parks put all over the world. Personally, I’d hate to be the zoning board that has to find places to host them!