This odd-ball dinosaur had the claws of a raptor, was the size of a duck and roamed Earth 70 million years ago
You’ve probably heard that age-old dilemma, the one that’s riddled playgrounds and pubs for generations: would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?
Well, how about a hundred duck-sized dinosaurs?
Originating from Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, scientists have found an eerily complete fossil of the Halszkaraptor escuilliei; essentially a raptor, or at least derived from a family of fleet-footed raptors, but with the ostensibly unthreatening aesthetic of a duck. The result of which is, of course, inconceivably threatening.
The fossil (which can be viewed in 3D here) was originally stolen from its paleontological site and did the rounds in private collections worldwide before being resubmitted for study in 2015. Following a series of high-tech X-ray scans at France’s European Synchotron Radiation Facility, the mystery of the unusual creature has now been realised and published in the journal Nature.
What could be gleaned from the Halszkaraptor’s fossil is that it was a dromeosaurid – a “running lizard” – in the same family as the Velociraptor, which roamed the planet more 70 million years ago. The unfortunate-looking specimen shares the raptor’s sprightly body, clawed feet, and weighty, powerful tail – with the notable caveat that it’s the size of a mallard duck. Scientists are able to deduce from the creature’s skull – sporting a cluster of sensory organs not dissimilar from that of a crocodile’s snout – that it likely spent time in water, catching fish as a food source, with an eminently flexible neck further lending itself to the semi-aquatic predator conception.
Interestingly, the Halszkaraptor is the only non-avian dinosaur to sport dual locomotory modes. That’s science’s way of say it can mobilise by paddling with its arms. The toddling monstrosity serves to hammer home to paleontologists how much there is left to discover; the notion of this kind of fish-hunting theropod hitherto confined to the realms of fiction (Gizmodo aptly points out parallels with Dougal Dixon’s “pouch”).
Philip Currie, co-author of the study and paleontologist at the University of Alberta marvelled that “[e]ven in very well-known sites, we can still find new animals and show that they have an incredible diversity of forms that we never even expected before […] I doubt we know one percent of one percent that lived in the world”. As for now, the fledgling predator has been confined to the annals of history. We, for one, couldn’t be more relieved.