66 Million-Year-Old Preserved Embryo Found Inside Fossilized Dinosaur Egg

Andrei Tapalaga

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Photo of the oviraptorosaur embryo 'Baby Yingliang'. It is one of the best-preserved dinosaur embryos ever reportedMa et al.,2021

Paleontologists have seen some incredible discoveries during this century, but this may be the greatest since the creation of paleontology. An almost perfect embryo was found inside a fossilised dinosaur egg that didn’t get to hatch. This embryo that had been named by experts as “Baby Yingliang” was found in the Cretaceous rocks of Ganzhou, southern China and it turns out to be the egg of an oviraptorosaur

Scientists from the University of Birmingham and China University of Geosciences (Beijing), the research team from institutions in China, UK, and Canada today published their findings in iScience. The study shows new evidence between the behaviour of modern birds and dinosaurs. This is also linked to why this embryo didn’t hatch. The rarity of this find is best described by Ph.D. researchers Fion Waisum Ma from the University of Birmingham:

“Dinosaur embryos are some of the rarest fossils and most of them are incomplete with the bones dislocated. We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’ — it is preserved in a great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it.” (Quote by Fion Waisum Ma)

Why didn’t Baby Yingliang hatch?

Based on the radiocarbon analyses, this fossilised dinosaur egg is predicted to be between 72 to 66 million years old. The reason why this egg didn’t hatch is likened to the hatching process found in modern birds today. Modern birds use this process called “tucking” where the bird or in this case dinosaur bends its body and brings its head under its wing or arm just before the egg to hatch. This helps improve the success rate of the eggs hatching

The embryo itself is in the same position as when it was alive, with none of its bones being moved from the original position. The egg measures 17 cm long whilst the creature is believed to be 27 cm long from head to tail. It is interesting that even pieces of the outer shell have remained intact. Dinosaur eggs had a very hard outer shell that was scaled. The closest eggs today that can be compared to dinosaur eggs are the ones from ostriches. 

One of the interesting findings from this study is that Avian tucking could have possibly originated from non-avian dinosaurs. From the research done by the pathologists who took part in this study, the posture in which the creature is sitting is similar to that of a late-stage modern bride embryo.

“It is interesting to see this dinosaur embryo and a chicken embryo pose in a similar way inside the egg, which possibly indicates similar prehatching behaviours.”(Quote by Fion Waisum Ma)

This means that the dinosaur egg was close to hatching, but due to the lack of tucking behavior, its hatching wasn’t successful. Although it was difficult to identify the exact species of dinosaur this embryo was part of, the experts have identified it as an oviraptorosaur based on its deep and toothless skull. This species is part of feathered theropod dinosaurs that are believed to be the ancestors of modern-day birds

The discovery of Baby Yingliang 

What is even more interesting is the actual discovery of this embryo. The egg itself was discovered around the early 2000s amount other similar eggs, but they have never been cracked opened or analyzed further. Since their discovery, they have been stored away and almost forgotten about. Professor Lida Xing from China University of Geosciences gives a lot more detail on the origin of this specimen: 

“This dinosaur embryo was acquired by the director of Yingliang Group, Mr Liang Liu, as suspected egg fossils around the 2000. During the construction of Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum in 2010s, museum staff sorted through the storage and discovered the specimens. These specimens were identified as dinosaur egg fossils. Fossil preparation was conducted and eventually unveiled the embryo hidden inside the egg. This is how ‘Baby Yingliang’ was brought to light.” (Quote by Professor Lida Xing)

If this was the case with Baby Yingliag, just imagine how many more type of well-preserved fossils could be stored in the archive of various museums, without us even knowing. All of the experts from this field have argued that this is by far the most remarkable and beautifully preserved dinosaur embryo discovered to date. 

Although a lot of things have been discovered from studying this specimen, it would be vital to study even more dinosaur embryos to understand the link between them and modern animals. In this way, we may find the missing link when it comes to the theory of evolution. If you would like to have a better look at the embryo, it is displayed inside Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum, Xianyang, China. 

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