Dinosaurs have histories in multiple senses. They have a history in an evolutionary sense, but they also have a more recent history: their discovery and scientific interpretations. For some dinosaurs, the ways scientists have understood them has changed over time, which has shaped the creatures’ histories in interesting ways. There’s arguably no better example of interpretations shaping a species than in the case of Oviraptor dinosaurs. In the 20th century, this bird-like dino transformed from a creature that was a thief, to one that was a protector.
In celebration of my online publication about the history of Oviraptors, here’s a quick overview of the Oviraptor’s odd history! The first Oviraptor fossils were uncovered in Mongolia in the 1920s by the American Natural History Museum funded Central Asiatic Expeditions. These fossil hunting expeditions were run by Roy Chapman Andrews at AMNH, inspired by the director Henry Fairfield Osborn’s notion that the origins of mammals–including humans–could be traced back to Asia.
Team member George Olsen discovered some dinosaur fossils in Shabarakh Usu, Mongolia, encased in a bed of red sandstone. The bones were close to a nest of dinosaur eggs. In fact, the skull was lying directly on some of the fossilized dinosaur eggs.
Osborn described the fossils in a1924 publication, naming the fossils a new species of theropod dinosaur called Oviraptor philoceratops, meaning “egg seizer,” with a “fondness for ceratopsian eggs.” Osborn argued that the proximity of the fossil to the eggs justified the assumption that the creature had “been overtaken by a sandstorm in the very act of robbing the dinosaur egg nest.” This classification of the egg stealer was based on the assumption that the eggs belonged to another species of dinosaur commonly found in that area, Proceratops andrewsii.
This idea that Oviraptor was an egg thief persisted until the 1990s. In 1993, a team led by Mark Norell from the AMNH, recovered the skeleton of an embryo in one of the eggs in question. Based on the fossilized embryonic bones, Norell confirmed that these eggs were that of a young Oviraptor philoceratops, not a Proceratops. Because the egg containing the embryo was identical to the eggs that Olsen had discovered underneath the original Oviraptor adult skeleton, Norell concluded that the Oviraptor was not an egg thief as Osborn had presumed, but instead a parent, either incubating or protecting the clutch of eggs. Since the 1990s, additional Oviraptor skeletons have been found on top of egg clutches, confirming the hypothesis that Oviraptor partook in brooding behavior.
The story of a shift in perspective from the egg thief to a protecting parent is just one example of scientists’ interpretations changing over time. One question that arises when considering these shifts is: how will our conception of dinosaurs continue to change? If you’re interested in Oviraptors, you can find more information in my Embryo Project article. Also, check out: Norell, Mark A., James M. Clark, Luis M. Chiappe, and Demberelyin Dashzeveg. “A nesting dinosaur.” Nature 378 (1995): 774–6; and Osborn, Henry Fairfield, Peter C. Kaisen, and George Olsen. “Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia.” American Museum Novitaes 144 (1924).