The fossil of this bizarre duck-like dinosaur was uncovered in Ukhaa Tolgod, a dinosaur graveyard in southern Mongolia. The fossil had circulated on the black market for years, but the creature seemed so outlandish that scientists were convinced it was a sophisticated forgery.
That is, until they took a closer look at it with ultrapowerful X-rays and found it to be genuine, reveals a new study, published on Wednesday (December 6) in the journal Nature.
The strange fossil belongs to a 75 million-year-old predator, which researchers have named Halszkaraptor escuilliei, or “Halszka” for short — in honor of Halszka Osmolska, a Polish paleontologist who studied Mongolian dinosaurs, and François Escuillie, the fossil collector who rescued the baffling remains from poachers and returned them to Mongolia, Live Science reports.
According to study senior author Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, the exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur skeleton had been illegally exported from Mongolia and held in private collections worldwide until 2015 when it was offered to science for examination and later sent back to its country of origin.
“Illicit fossil trade presents a great challenge to modern paleontology and accounts for a dramatic loss of Mongolian scientific heritage,” Godefroit said in a statement.
This peculiar dinosaur looks like an odd mix of duck, crocodile, ostrich, and swan. Standing about 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, Halszkaraptor escuilliei sported a duck-like bill, adorned with strong teeth that resemble those of a crocodile, and had a swan-like neck, amphibious flippers, and killer claws just like a Velociraptor.
“The first time I examined the specimen, I even questioned whether it was a genuine fossil,” confessed study lead author Andrea Cau, from the Geological Museum Capellini in Bologna, Italy.
“The fossil was so complete, beautifully preserved, and at the same time so enigmatic and bizarre, with a completely unexpected mix of strange features. It was the most exciting challenge for a paleontologist!”
Halszkaraptor escuilliei was a theropod, a class of carnivorous dinosaurs that includes the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex and the iconic Velociraptor. However, unlike most therapods, which “never conquered aquatic environments,” this duck-like dinosaur not only ventured into the water to look for prey but was, in fact, semi-aquatic.
In order to study the peculiar fossil and verify its authenticity, the researchers joined forces with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France. The team analyzed the remains, which were still embedded in rock, using synchrotron multi-resolution X-ray microtomography — a technique that allows for multiple X-rays, 100 billion times more powerful than those used in hospitals.
By assembling the X-rays into a 3D image, the scientists were able to reconstruct the dinosaur’s bizarre features, an “unexpected mix of traits” that “makes it difficult to place Halszka within traditional classifications,” Cau points out.
The synchrotron offered the great advantage of revealing, in astonishing detail, even those parts of the nearly complete skeleton that have remained deep within the rock ever since the fossil was made, shows an ESRF news release detailing the procedure.
The analysis not only confirmed the fossil was genuine, but also uncovered Halszkaraptor escuilliei walked like a duck while on land and swam like a penguin when it was hunting in water.
Moreover, the synchrotron showed “Halszka” had a number of small teeth that weren’t visible to the naked eye, and which probably helped the dinosaur nab tiny fish as it cut through the water with its limber backbone and flipper-like forelimbs.
This duck-like dinosaur also boasted an extremely sensitive snout, just like modern aquatic predators, which rely on their sense of touch to hunt in murky waters, National Geographic notes.
Inside “Halszka’s” snout, the synchrotron found channels leading to pressure sensors on the dinosaur’s face — “a neurovascular mesh […] that resembles those of modern crocodiles to a remarkable degree,” said Vincent Beyrand, study author and researcher at the ESRF.
“These aspects suggest that Halszka was an aquatic predator,” he added.
This unique combination of features sets Halszkaraptor escuilliei apart as “a new genus and species of bird-like dinosaur,” which undoubtedly adopted a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Its unexpected discovery sheds new light on raptorial dinosaurs, which the study now proves could sometimes be amphibious.