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Egg-stealing dinosaur was innocent,

THE rare discovery of a fossil embryo has cleared the name of a dinosaur

called “egg stealer”. Oviraptor, first discovered apparently making a meal of

another dinosaur’s eggs, was, it now turns out, simply trying to hatch its own

offspring.

In 1923, an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History in New

York found the first Oviraptor skeleton on a nest of eggs in the Mongolian

desert. The scientists thought the elongated eggs belonged to Protoceratops, a

plant-eating dinosaur whose fossils were common in the area. They chose the

name Oviraptor because they assumed the animal, a predator with sharp claws

and a parrot-like beak, was trying to eat the eggs when it was caught in a

sandstorm and died.

No one could confirm that a Protoceratops had definitely laid the eggs,

however. The contents of fossil eggs are hardly ever preserved. But in the

latest issue of the journal Science, a team of researchers from Mongolia and

the American Museum report on their discovery of a very similar egg containing

a tiny Oviraptor skeleton, almost ready to hatch. The egg was found 300

kilometres from the site of the 1923 excavations.

The 80-million-year-old embryo is the first found from the group of

dinosaurs related most closely to birds. Like birds, dinosaurs brooded their

young, says Mark Norell of the American Museum.

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The same nest contained another curious find – the skulls of two tiny young

carnivores belonging to the same family as the velociraptors, best known as

the terrors of Jurassic Park. It is possible that these small carnivores were

raiding the nest. However, Norell says the absence of any other bones suggests

the skulls “were brought to the nest by adult [oviraptors] who had cleaned out

a Velociraptor nest” and like modern ospreys, brought their catch home to

eat

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