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News: “Egg thief” dinosaur from Hell Creek FINALLY named!

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All I can say is “It’s about time!!!”

After sitting around for years without an official description, a bird-like dinosaur found in the Hell Creek Formation has finally been given a name. I’m very happy about that. What I’m not happy about is the name that was actually chosen – Anzu wyliei, a name that I REALLY don’t find appealing.

Last year, I read that a bird-like dinosaur more commonly found in the Gobi Desert was discovered in North America. Furthurmore, I found out that it was actually on display in Pittsburgh, and had been for several years – it shows just how horribly behind the times I am. However, I was aghast when I learned that this creature didn’t even have a name. I asked “What the hell’s been taking them (meaning the scientists) so long?” Well now the wait is over.

Anzu (I’m actually shuddering as I’m writing the name – I just loathe the way that it sounds) was a member of a family of dinosaurs called Caenagnathidae. The caenagnathids were a sub-group within a super-family of theropods known as the oviraptorosaurs, or “egg thief lizards”. These very bird-like dinosaurs are well-known from Asia, especially China and Mongolia, but they are almost unheard of anywhere else. Oviraptorosaurs ranged in size from five to twenty-five feet long, and might have evolved from the ornithomimids, the “bird mimics”, commonly known as “ostrich mimics” due to their ostrich-like appearance. The most famous of them was Oviraptor, “egg thief” found in Mongolia by the adventurous Roy Chapman Andrews. The name came from the discovery of a partial skeleton lying on top of a nest of eggs. Chapman and his colleagues thought that the animal was in the process of plundering the nest when it was killed. It wasn’t until later when the insides of the eggs were carefully examined that paleontologists discovered that the preserved embryos were that of other oviraptorosaurs. This animal wasn’t preying upon the eggs – it was the mother.

The caenagnathids have had a confusing history, dating back to the early 20th Century. In the early 1920s, the famous paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore was fossil hunting in Alberta, Canada, when he found the remains of a new and strange creature known only from a pair of incomplete hands. In 1924, he gave them the name Chirostenotes pergracilis. Another dinosaur was named based upon an incomplete foot, and it was called Macrophalangia. By the late 1970s, scientists realized that these two animals were the same, and Chirostenotes became the official name.

But what sort of creature was Chirostenotes? It was clearly a theropod – a bipedal meat-eater – but the bone structure was unlike any other theropod known. In fact, it looked very bird-like. It was believed that Chirostenotes was most similar to another mysterious dinosaur called Elmisaurus, which came from Mongolia during the late Cretaceous Period.

For a long time, Chirostenotes was the only North American oviraptorosaur, specifically a caenagnathid. It was found in rocks dated to the Campanian Stage (80-70 MYA) of the Cretaceous Period. Then, in the 1960s, another oviraptorosaur – and a very early primitive one at that – was found, named Microvenator, “the little hunter”. It lived in Montana approximately 100 million years ago alongside Deinonychus and Tenontosaurus. This showed that oviraptorosaurs were present in North America for much longer than previously suspected.

It had been believed for a while that Chirostenotes and its kind had become extinct a millions of years before the dinosaurs’ exinction. However, in the 1990s, fossils of an animal which might have been an oviraptorosaur were found in Montana in rocks that dated to the very end of the Cretaceous Period – the famous Hell Creek Formation, the home of Tyrannosaurus rex. No oviraptorosaur fossils had ever been found there before. In 1994, Canadian paleontologist Phil Currie, an expert on theropod dinosaurs, published a paper on a fragment of a lower jaw found at the “Sue” site. Based upon it’s shape, it was obviously an oviraptorosaur, specifically a member of the family Caenagnathidae. However, this specimen was significantly larger than any previously-known specimens. It could have been a larger specimen of Chirostenotes, or it might have been a new species.

The problem was that Chirostenotes was known only from a few fragmentary finds – a complete or nearly-complete skeleton had never been found. Then, a pair of incomplete skeletons were found in Hell Creek, and were described in 1995. Ever since then, they have been housed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The staff at the Carnegie Museum even took these two skeletons, composited them together, and put the creature on display for the public! However, the creature still did not have a definitive identification. Paleontologists were uncertain as to whether “the Triebold specimens”, as they were called, were Chirostenotes or maybe another larger species.

In 2011, Matt Lamanna and other scientists announced that they were studying the Hell Creek oviraptorosaur in more detail. Based upon a preliminary view, they stated that it was very similar to Chirostenotes, but they shied away from going so far as to claim that it was a distinct species.

In 2013, a team from the Burpee Museum (the same museum famous for “Jane”, which might be either a Nanotyrannus or a juvenile T. rex, depending on who you ask) discovered the partial skeleton of a caenagnathid oviraptorosaur near the small town of Ekalaka, Montana. The bones were so large that they originally thought that they had found a T. rex; Professor Thomas Holtz of Maryland rushed to the site and confirmed the animal’s identity. This specimen was even larger than the Triebold specimens in the Carnegie Museum. It was affectionately nicknamed “Pearl”.

In 2014, Matt Lamanna and three other colleagues published a paper on the Triebold specimens collected from North and South Dakota. After an exhaustive analysis of the bones, they concluded that the Triebold specimens were not Chirostenotes or Caenagnathus, but constituted an entirely separate genus. They called it Anzu wyliei. According to Lamanna’s own report, the dinosaur was named after Anzu, a feathered bird-like demon from Mesopotamian mythology, and measured somewhere between ten to fifteen feet long.

What the heck does a Mesopotamian demon, feathered or otherwise, have to do with a North American dinosaur? I can understand if the fossils were found in Iraq, but they weren’t. I would actually be highly surprised if ANY dinosaur fossils were uncovered in Iraq. It would be a lot more fitting if it was given a traditional Greco-Latin name, something like Dakotaraptor, or maybe even named after a being from native Sioux Indian folklore, like Wakinyanoraptor (“Wakinyan” is the Sioux name for the thunderbird sky spirit).

But then again, what the heck does the white-skinned feathered serpent god from central Mexico have to do with an unusually large pterosaur from Texas, which neither looked anything remotely like a serpent, nor had feathers, nor came from Mexico? I’m talking about Quetzalcoatlus, for those of you who haven’t caught on. So I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh. Still, Anzu … it just sounds SOOOOO wrong. Unfortunately, we’re all stuck with it.

The specimen uncovered by the team from the Burpee Museum is also likely a specimen of Anzu.

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2 Comments

  1. […] News: “Egg thief” dinosaur from Hell Creek FINALLY named! […]

  2. […] the Hell Creek Formation. I wrote of its discovery and naming in an earlier post that you can read here. The caenagnathids were a primitive group of oviraptorosaurs, the “egg thief” […]

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