It was a very close call indeed for the dinosaur dubbed as the “Mud Dragon.” If it wasn’t for a dynamite explosion, it wouldn’t have been spotted by researchers, but that same explosion nearly blew its fossil to smithereens and effectively prevented its discovery.
The new discovery is known scientifically as Tongtianlong limosus, and it existed in the Cretaceous era some 66 to 72 million years ago in what is now known as China. It was an oviraptorosaur, a two-legged species of feathered dinosaur. But what makes it really special, according to researchers, is how it had seemingly died in vain, with its legs stuck in the mud and its head stretching out as it tried to escape. Its scientific name, in fact, translates to “muddy dragon on the road to heaven.”
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In a press statement quoted by National Geographic, University of Edinburgh researcher Steve Brusatte talked about the sad fate of the fossilized dinosaur that couldn’t quite escape to safety at the time of its death.
“This new dinosaur is one of the most beautiful, but saddest, fossils I’ve ever seen. But we’re lucky that the mud dragon got stuck in the muck, because its skeleton is one of the best examples of a dinosaur that was flourishing during those final few million years before the asteroid came down and changed the world in an instant.”
What’s also interesting about the “mud dragon” is the manner in which its fossil was discovered. In an email to the Christian Science Monitor, Brusatte talked about how fate had somehow ensured that T. limosus‘ skeleton would remain almost intact. For millions of years, the dinosaur’s body was trapped in the mud that would eventually harden into rock, but it was somehow freed when construction workers used some dynamite to break the rock apart.
“It was very nearly destroyed by dynamite. We’re talking about a matter of inches here – if the dynamite was placed a few inches closer to the skeleton, then we would probably have no record at all that this unique dinosaur even existed.”
Tongtianlong limosus is part of the oviraptorosaur family of dinosaurs, a group of reptiles known for their bird-like features. The animals sported feathers, sharp beaks, and toothless heads that were unusually short in proportion to their body. They also had distinctive crests, which mainly served an aesthetic purpose, but were used by males of the species to attract females, while scaring off fellow males. Oviraptorosaurs also weren’t that large in comparison to many other dinosaurs of the time; they ranged in length from as short as four feet to as long as 22 feet.
National Geographic notes that the “mud dragon” was found in southern China, and is the sixth such oviraptorosaur to be discovered in that particular region. Researchers estimated the dinosaur to be about the same size as a larger sheep or smaller donkey.
— P.M.O.I (@Mojahedineng) November 11, 2016
On a sadder note, T. limosus was also one of the last dinosaurs on Earth before a mass extinction event killed them all off. And experts believe that the fact several oviraptorosaurs have already been found in southern China and other parts of the world means that they were diversifying, and were doing quite well for themselves at the time the mass extinction hit.
Brusatte told the Christian Science Monitor that oviraptorosaurs may have been part of the “final wave” of diversification among dinosaurs. And they weren’t the only successful species in the late Cretaceous era, as tyrannosaurs ruled the roost as large and fearsome carnivores, and sauropods stood out for their size among plant-eaters. In fact, Brusatte believes that everything “(seemed) to be thriving” when an asteroid hit Earth and caused the mass dinosaur extinction.
“(The mud dragon was) part of the story that dinosaurs were still doing quite well, still splitting into new species and dominating ecosystems, right up until the end,” he stated.