Despite all that we seem to know about dinosaurs, there’s still a lot we do not know about these prehistoric giants that ruled the Earth long before we arrived.
Many of them were given the wrong name, placed in the wrong family, and mislabeled throughout their history. That’s mainly because the bulk of what we know about them, we learn from their fossils, and our interpretations can be wrong sometimes.
Take the Oviraptor, for instance, whose name literally means “egg thief” when translated from Greek. But was this prehistoric bird an egg thief? Or is it just another case of mistaken identity scientists now know better? Find out in this brief article!
The Oviraptor Wasn’t Really an Egg Thief
Let’s clear up the mixup right away. Despite the name, which seems to be an obvious indictment, the Oviraptor was not really an egg thief. In fact, new facts now suggest that this Mesozoic giant was most likely a well-behaved feathered theropod.
So why did it get such a bad rep? The story goes back to 1923 when the famous fossil hunter, Roy Chapman Andrews, led an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History. The team discovered some dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Right away, scientists thought the eggs belonged to Protoceratops, which was a small-horned dinosaur. This wasn’t exactly a far-fetched conclusion considering they were among the most abundant dinosaurs in the region during the Cretaceous period.
However, things became even more complicated when they found bones of another dinosaur that wasn’t a Proteceratop in one of the nests. It was the skull of a toothless theropod dinosaur, and it was on top of one of the clutches of eggs. In 1924, while interpreting the find, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn believed that the therapod’s jaw was for crushing eggs. And since it was found in association with Proteceratop eggs, the dinosaur might have died while trying to rob the nest. Thus the name Oviraptor, which translates to “egg thief” from Greek, seemed just fitting for this nest robber.
Clearing the Air
The Oviraptor name stuck for several decades. It wasn’t until 1993 that additional fieldwork in the Gobi Desert revealed the truth about the identity of the Oviraptors. Paleontologists discovered another site with eggs similar to the one from 1925, and the same Oviraptor bones were also found in association with the nest.
Fortunately, this time, the eggs contained near-term embryos, and closer studies revealed that they were not Protoceratop eggs as originally presumed. Instead, the delicate embryo skeleton in the egg was that of an Oviraptor. This provided some evidence that the Oviraptor from 1923 wasn’t robbing the nest. It was probably watching over the eggs.
Not long after, scientists found even more evidence to support this new assertion. This came in the form of Oviraptor nests with well-preserved skeletons of the adult dinosaurs with their arms spread out over the eggs. This suggests that they were brooding over the nest like modern aves (birds) do. The Ovipator’s name was then assigned, and it has stayed the same since.
Not An Egg Thief But a Brooding Parent
Although their initial discovery painted a dark picture for the Oviraptors, we now know that they were most likely the exact opposite of what their name says. Scientists think Oviraptors were brooding parents. Like many modern-day birds, they incubated their eggs with their body heat.
The specimen that was discovered brooding over its nest was probably buried by a sandstorm. The fact that it died protecting its eggs suggests that they were strongly attached to their young. It is unclear whether male Oviraptors or the female members of the genus had the responsibility of caring for their young this way.
What Did They Look Like?
Oviraptors were small and lightly-built theropod dinosaurs. They were about 1.8 meters (6 feet) long and might have weighed between 73lbs to 88lbs (33 to 40 kg). Oviraptors stood at a height of 1 meter (3 feet).
Although these dinosaurs had two well-developed hindlimbs on which they walked, they also had long and slender forelimbs. They were capable of using their forelimbs to grasp things as they had three long-clawed fingers.
The head of the Oviraptor gave them a distinct appearance. Their skull was short, and they must have had very large eyes surrounded by a bony ring. Although they were toothless, these dinosaurs had a horned beak-like covering that was curved like a parrot’s beak.
Based on the description of their appearance, scientists consider the Oviraptor as one of the most bird-like dinosaurs. They had beaks and also walked on long powerful legs like ostriches. Some theories also suggest that they had feathers. However, there isn’t enough evidence to support that theory.
What Did They Eat?
Now that we know they’re innocent of the egg-eating allegation, what did Oviraptors eat? New theory suggests that they were either carnivorous or omnivorous. Some scientists think this dinosaur must have fed on mollusks which means it likely led a partially aquatic lifestyle. The strength of their robust lower jaws and the horned beak would have been strong enough to break the shell of mollusks such as clams. The fact that scientists found some mollusks’ shells in the same rocks with the Oviraptor suggests that this might be true.
The strong hindlegs suggest that they were good runners, but it is unlikely that they hunted prey actively.
However, some scientists think they used their toothless jaws to eat leaves. This suggests an omnivorous diet. The discovery of fragmented remains of a small lizard in the body cavity of an Oviraptor in 1995 seems to be conclusive evidence that they did eat flesh.
Where Did They Live?
Paleontologists found the Oviraptor philoceratops species in the Djadokhta Formation, located in the Bayn Dzak locality in present-day Mongolia. The formation is from the Late Cretaceous period, which is about 71 million to 75 million years old. Their habitat at the time was most likely a semi-arid climate similar to the Gobi Desert. It had sand dunes, but there were also intermittent streams on the landscape, which provided seasonal moisture.
Threat and Predators
Although the Oviraptor appears to be an omnivore or carnivore, the dinosaur’s small body would have made it easy prey for any of the large carnivorous dinosaurs that lived around the same time. But, that’s not to say they were entirely defenseless. Their sharp claws and beak could do some damage. Of course, that probably wouldn’t have meant much against a ferocious predator like the T-rex.
Contrary to what scientists thought initially, we now know that the Oviraptor was not an egg thief. Instead, the feathered theropod was a dinosaur that cared for its young and probably died protecting them. Unfortunately, its name will forever tell a different story.
9 Dinosaurs With Feathers– Dinosaurs are the ancient ancestors of present-day birds. Here are nine dinosaurs that were closely similar to the aves.
8 Dinosaurs With Crests – These eight dinosaurs had crests on their heads like many birds do today. Read all about these ancient ancestors of the modern aves.
Pteranodon– Flying dinosaurs were plentiful back in the Cretaceous period, and the Pteranodon was one of the most notable ones. Read this to learn all about this impressive flying beast.
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- Smithsonian Magazine, Available here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/baby-dinosaur-mystery-4610005/
- Thought Co., Available here: https://www.thoughtco.com/oviraptor-the-egg-thief-dinosaur-1093794
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oviraptor
- Kansas Discovery, Available here: https://kansasdiscovery.org/why-oviraptors-werent-dinosaur-egg-thieves-just-great-mothers/
- Science Views, Available here: https://scienceviews.com/dinosaurs/oviraptor.html