The case for the innocence of a dinosaur labeled the “egg seizer”; the Oviraptor.
Most children I have the pleasure of teaching and interacting with here at Nature’s Art Village know all about the big bad Oviraptor who steals other dinosaurs’ eggs. Parents, grandparents, teachers, nannies, and best friends also know this story. It begins in 1924 when the first specimen was described in a publication by Henry Fairfield Osborn. The fossilized partial skeleton was discovered atop what was believed to be a pile of eggs belonging to a fossilized Protoceratops found nearby. Appearing to have died in the act of taking some undoubtedly scrumptious Protoceratops eggs, this new dinosaur was given a scientific name Oviraptor philoceratops with genus meaning “egg seizer” and species meaning “lover of Ceratopsians”. The entire oviraptoridae family reputation was tarnished from day one.
A Boogieman of sorts, oviraptorids are often portrayed creeping up on nests filled with helpless eggs to devour the unborn hatchlings with their egg-piercing beaks. But what if I told you that there’s no truth to that popular image? Over half a century after the first oviraptorid dinosaur was discovered, some striking new fossils from the same genus were found. These fossils were of Citipati osmolskae, a new species of oviraptoridae, the family to which its close relative Oviraptor philoceratops also belongs. Citipati was found perched atop a clutch of eggs (pictured above). Ahha! Caught in the act again! Not quite. The well-preserved Citipati skeletons were nestled in the middle of eggs carefully arranged in a circle. Its forearms were spread over and around them symmetrically. This position can be observed today in birds brooding their eggs. The feathers of Citipati would have covered the eggs and protected them from the elements. And what’s more, the eggs are the same type as the ones previously thought to be Oviraptor’s dinner in 1924. Scientists are nothing if not thorough, and with the happy discovery of Citipati came the uncovering of even more oviraptorid egg clutches. The most famous of these eggs was broken revealing the fossilized embryo inside. This embryo was not of Protoceratops; it was of an oviraptorid further assisting to correct the “egg thief” misnomer. Oviraptorids can no longer be seen as criminals on the hunt for unprotected eggs, but rather as devoted parents.
Here at Nature’s Art Village, I’ve had the privilege to share the happy resolution to the Oviraptor story with many children and families. In our outdoor adventure park, The Dinosaur Place, kids often remark on the “bad” Oviraptor replicas next to the Protoceratops nest. The vignette (pictured) with our life-sized replicas displayed outside is a fantastic teaching tool. Parents have told me that they had no idea the image they had grown up with was so entirely false. These teaching moments excite me, and I hope this knowledge excites you as well. As is usually the case with science, there’s more to the story, but that will have to wait until my next blog post. So for now, I’ll leave you with this: one of the best things about science is that it’s self-correcting. The oviraptorids and their legacy can surely attest to that.
Clark, James M., Norell, Mark A., and Rowe, Timothy. 2002. Cranial Anatomy of Citipati osmolskae (Theropoda, Oviraptorosauria), and a Reinterpretation of the Holotype Oviraptor philoceratops. American Museum Novitates, 3364.
Norell, Mark A., Clark, James M., Chiappe, Luis M., and Dashzeveg, Demberelyin. 1995. A nesting dinosaur. Nature, 378;28.