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Creature Of the Week #15: Oviraptor

  • 24-03-2010 11:24pm
    Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭

    Oviraptor was the villain of the late Cretaceous period, stealing the eggs of other dinosaurs and eating them.
    Or did it?

    The name Oviraptor philoceratops, coined in 1924 by the renowned dinosaur expert Henry Fairfield Osborn, means 'egg thief who was fond of ceratopsians'. It recieved this less than flattering name as when it was discovered by legendary fossil hunter Roy Chapman Andrews it's remains appeared to be fossilised in the act of pillaging a nest of Protoceratops eggs. It was not until much later, when oviraptorid eggs complete with the tiny remains of unborn babies were discovered, that a similarity was noted between the new eggs and the ones describes in 1924. It would seem the good mother Oviraptor was not feeding on the clutch of eggs, but rather died defending them, perhaps in a sand storm. Oviraptor's name was cleared.

    Ironically, Oviraptor's diet is something of a mystery. The best clue we have is the partially digested remains of a lizard in an Oviraptor's stomach. This shows that they did eat meat on occassion, but how big a part of their diet it was is unclear. Since Oviraptor had no teeth we can't be certain. It may well have eaten eggs from time to time or used it's beak to kill small to medium sized animals. Others have suggested that it was specially designed for eating shellfish, but the habitat it's fossils are found in do not appear to support this idea.
    Image by Todd Marshall

    It did however, have sharp hooked claws on it's hands. These may have come in useful as Oviraptor shared it's habitat (the Gobi dessert, Mongolia & China) with Velociraptor. They may well have been fierce rivals. Oviraptor was roughly the same lenght as Velociraptor (about 2 meters long), but was a significantly more stocky animal.

    Relatives of Oviraptor such as Caudipteryx were covered in feathers, including a fan like tail. It is very likely that Oviraptor also had feathers. Interestingly the specimens of oviraptorids found on nests appear to be shielding them the way large modern birds with their arms. These arms most likely had long feathers to shield the nest from dust storms and/or keep the eggs warm at night.

    Oviraptor is usually portrayed with a tall (usually brightly coloured) crest similar to that of the modern day cassowary bird. Unfortunately all of the known Oviraptor skulls have been badly damaged so it is hard to reconstruct what the skull looked like in any great detail. The aforementioned reconstructions are based of Oviraptor's close relative Citipati, which was once considered a species of Oviraptor (for a story of similar confusion see our article on Giraffatitan).

    Where have I seen you before?

    Oviraptor featured heavily in the episode of Dinosaur Planet titled White Tip's Journey. It is probably the most accurate restoration of Oviraptor to appear on TV:

    It also shows up (4:10) in Disney's Dinosaur, stealing eggs...

    The Dinotopia series of books feature Oviraptors, albeit renamed 'Ovinutrix', a clever play on words meaning 'egg carer'.

    One of the characters in The Land Before Time series is an Oviraptor called Ruby:

    They also show up in the game Dino Crisis 2 and can spit venomfor some reason. The designers probably mistook them for the Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park which also had a head crest.