Rare Dinosaur Eggs Discovered by N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Paleontologist

Dinosaur egg discovery
Raleigh

Of all the ways humans interact with dinosaurs, eating their eggs is surely the most commonplace. Visit any home in America today and you’ll undoubtedly encounter a dozen or so biding their time in the fridge next to a quart of milk and brick of butter. Yet, finding a fossilized dinosaur egg is quite simply, an extraordinary occurrence. Although large numbers of spectacular fossil nests have been recovered in Asia, the continental record in North America is poor. This contrast is particularly striking for the bizarre, bird-like group of theropod dinosaurs dubbed oviraptorosaurs. To imagine an oviraptorosaur, picture an overgrown cassowary, complete with a half-moon shaped crest on the head, toothless beak, long feathers on the arms, and a broad tail-feather fan similar to a turkey. Hundreds of oviraptorosaur nests, each containing dozens of eggs, are known from China and Mongolia, yet only two fragmentary eggs have yet been definitively described from the continent of North America.

That all changed In October, when a team of paleontologists led by Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and assistant research professor at N.C. State University, recovered a clutch of more than eight football-sized oviraptorosaur eggs, from sediments deposited during the Late Cretaceous, around 97 million years ago. The site also contained evidence of ancient trees that once lined the river bank where the dinosaur parents-to-be sat roosting on their nests.

“This is the first time we found a clutch of oviraptorosaur eggs on the North American continent,” Zanno adds, “it’s incredibly exciting for us.” When describing the day he found the eggs, Terry Gates of N.C. State’s Department of Biological Sciences says, “It was a moment when 20 years of hard-earned determination, patience, luck and that little voice inside my head led to one of the most important fossil discoveries of my life.”

Zanno adds that discovering the eggs, tucked in the side of a 2,000-foot, sheer cliff-face her team dubbed the “Cliffs of Insanity” (a name that needs no explanation to fans of “The Princess Bride”), was just the beginning. After preparing the egg clutch for removal, the resulting 1,400-pound plaster-encased clutch was well beyond the team’s capacity to carry out on foot, and no vehicle could reach the cliff. That left only one solution — helicopter salvage. After airlifting the clutch from the cliff, the eggs were laid carefully into the bed of a truck-drawn trailer for transportation back to North Carolina.

Now, safely back at the Museum, chief fossil preparator Aaron Giterman has begun to slowly release the fossil eggs from the surrounding rock so they can be studied. Visitors to the Museum can watch the preparation of eggs behind the glass walls of the Paleontology Research Lab beginning on March 29.

“We are fortunate to have some incredibly talented scientists and researchers on our staff, and they amaze me every day with the fascinating and important discoveries they make about our natural world,” said Susi H. Hamilton, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “I can’t wait to see what our paleontologists can learn from this exciting find.”

Watch a video of the dinosaur egg nest being airlifted off the cliff face by helicopter: https://youtu.be/IHu0ObhzFC4