Weird new dino looked more like a duck

This ancient dinosaur was adapted to swim and hunt on the water

This bird-like dinosaur probably spent a lot of time in the water. It had front limbs like flippers and a long neck for snatching fish. It may even have stood upright like today’s ducks.

Lukas Panzarin

A newly discovered creature walked like a duck and swam like a penguin. But this was no bird. The strange species is an ancient dinosaur. Researchers say it’s the first one they know of that could both walk and swim.

Andrea Cau and his colleagues studied the fossil. Cau is a vertebrate paleontologist at the Geological and Palaeontological Museum in Bologna, Italy. The researchers named the new species Halszkaraptor escuilliei (HAHLZ-kuh-RAP-tur Es-KWEEL-ee-eye).

The researchers wanted to study H. escuilliei in three dimensions. But Cau’s team didn’t want to risk rearranging or damaging the bones. So they studied the fossil while it was still partially embedded in rock. To do this, the group turned to a tool called synchrotron (SYNK-ro-tron) radiation scanning. It zapped the fossil with X-rays. Those highly energetic beams revealed tiny details of the bones without damaging them.

Like a swan, this dino had a long neck. It probably dipped its head underwater to fish. Weight near its hips balanced out the dinosaur’s heavy neck. This let the animal stand upright. Its posture probably looked like that of short-tailed water birds, the scientists say, such as ducks.

H. escuilliei also had forelimbs that looked like flippers. Such traits, the researchers report, suggest the animal spent much of its time in the water. They described their findings December 6 in Nature.

Today’s birds are closely related to extinct dinos. Actually, birds are considered living dinosaurs. That’s why scientists sometimes call birds “avian dinosaurs.” Extinct dinos are “non-avian dinosaurs.” But although lots of birds split their time between water and land, H. escuilliei is the only non-avian dinosaur scientists have found that likely did so, too.

This newly discovered dino lived 75 million and 71 million years ago in what’s now Mongolia. That was a time known as the Late Cretaceous period. H. escuilliei belonged to a diverse group of two-legged animals called theropods. This group also include today’s birds. Many extinct theropods, such as tyrannosaurs, were mainly meat eaters. But H. escuilliei’s jaw, nose and number of teeth suggest this swimmer would have preferred to dine on fish.

Tap or click the interactive image to explore the fossil.

Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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