Embryonic Dinosaur Skull Could Mark Discovery of New Species

(CN) — New analysis of a Patagonian dinosaur’s nearly intact embryonic skull has paleontologists wondering whether they’ve discovered a new species of dinosaur.

“Dinosaur eggs are for me like time capsules that bring a message from the ancient time,” paleobiologist Martin Kundrat of Slovakia’s Pavol Jozef Šafárik University said in a statement. “This was the case of our specimen that tells a story about Patagonian giants before they hatched.”

This image shows the titanosaurian embryo skull along with a skull and head reconstruction. (Credit: Kundrat et al. /Current Biology)

The sauropod dinosaurs existed approximately 80 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous Period, and are characterized by their extraordinarily long necks and tails, thick legs and small heads — sort of like a brontosaurus.

“The specimen studied in our paper represents the first 3D preserved embryonic skull of a sauropod sauropodomorph,” Kundrat said. “The most striking feature is head appearance, which implies that hatchlings of giant dinosaurs may differ in where and how they lived in their earliest stages of life. But because it differs in facial anatomy and size from the sauropod embryos of Auca Mahuevo, we cannot rule out that it may represent a new titanosaurian dinosaur.”

Kundrat and his team — seven scientists in all, representing institutions in the Slovak Republic, Sweden, Argentina, the U.S. and the U.K. — got a closer look at the embryonic dinosaur by scanning the specimen with synchrotron microtomography, which allowed the scientists to reconstruct and study the inner structure of its bones, teeth and soft tissues.

Kundrat and co-author Daniel Snitting, a research engineer at Sweden’s Uppsala University, were able to detect small teeth preserved in the embryo’s tiny jaw sockets in addition to a calcified embryonic braincase and the remains of temporal muscles on the sides of its skull, similar to those human beings use to move our jaws.

Their findings, published Thursday in Current Biology, suggest that the embryo would have drawn calcium from its eggshell, and would have emerged with a temporary single-horned face — a surprising find for a sauropod, the authors note — in addition to retracted openings on its nose and stereoscopic vision, as human beings and many other binocular creatures have.

The authors speculate that this specialized head and face could have transformed as the young dinosaurs matured.

This image shows a magnified perspective of the titanosaurian embryonic skull along with a skull reconstruction. (Credit: Kundrat et al. /Current Biology)

“We suggest an alternative head appearance for babies of these Patagonian giants,” Kundrat said in the statement. “A horned faced and binocular vision are features quite different from what we expected in titanosaurian dinosaurs.”

These anatomic differences separate the newly discovered embryonic skull from embryos recovered from elsewhere in Auca Mahuevo, a nesting site for other Late Cretaceous sauropods found in the Patagonian badlands.

Though this specimen also hails from Patagonia, little else is known about its origins because the egg was illegally exported and returned only when a co-author in Arizona, Terry Manning, sent the fossil back to Argentina for further study.

It is now housed with other titanosaurian embryos found in Patagonia at the Museo Municipal Carmen Funes, a paleontology museum in Plaza Huincul, Argentina, in the care of curator Rodolfo Coria, also a co-author of the study.

Kundrat says he intends to study other continents’ embryonic dinosaurs with the synchrotron technology that yielded the latest findings.

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