Latest oviraptosaur had cassowary-like skull

Dug up from a site near the Ganzhou train station, in the southern Chinese province of Jiangxi, the latest addition to the family of feathered but flightless dinosaurs known as oviraptosaurs features a head similar to the modern-day cassowaries of northern Australia and New Zealand.

Dated to the Campanian-Maastrichtian stages of the Upper Cretaceous, 66 million to 84 million years ago, the dinosaur has been named Corythoraptor jacobsi – “Corythoraptor” referring to a raptor bearing a “cassowary-like crest” on its head, and “jacobsi” to vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, who mentored three of the Chinese researchers involved in the fossil’s identification.

Ganzhou has proven a dino treasure trove in recent times, with six other oviraptosaurs named from the region. The namers of the corythoraptor, in their paper published in Scientific Reports, describe it as most closely related to Huanansaurus ganzhouensis, which is estimated to have weighed as much as 75 kg and measured 2.5 metres from head to tail.

The new find, however, differs from all the other oviraptosaur finds due to its cassowary-like skull crest, known as a casque. Based on its structure compared to the modern bird’s, the researchers hypothesise the dinosaur’s casque served a number of functions: thermal regulation, its inner cavities dissipating heat produced inside of the braincase; acoustic signalling, amplifying sounds; and “sociosexual” ornamentation, demonstrating procreative fitness to potential mates.

Oviraptosaurs are part of the therapod suborder of dinosaurs, from which modern birds evolved. Science writer John Pickrell, who has closely followed the explosion of therapod dinosaur finds in China, says it is not surprising specimens are being found with more and more bird-like traits.

“Oviraptorids particularly have a number of fast-running, long-legged
species that were remarkably similar to modern emus, ostriches and
cassowaries,” says Pickrell, the author of several books on palaeontology include Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles became birds. “Some of these species have head crests, and it’s easy to
imagine a dinosaur like this new species that would have been covered
with feathers and easily mistaken for a flightless bird had you chanced
upon it amid the foliage of a Cretaceous forest.”

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