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10 Facts About Oviraptor

Everything You Need to Know About the "Egg Thief" Dinosaur

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oviraptor

A typical small, feathered theropod, Oviraptor looked a lot like a modern bird (Matt Martyniuk)

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These supposed "Protoceratops" eggs were actually laid by Oviraptor (Wikimedia Commons)

oviraptor

Like many other oviraptor dinosaurs, the capital-O Oviraptor was native to central Asia (Nobu Tamura)

One of the most spectacularly misunderstood of all dinosaurs, Oviraptor wasn't really an "egg thief" but a smallish, feathered theropod of the later Mesozoic Era. Here are 10 facts you may (or may not) have known about this Cretaceous carnivore. (See also a gallery of Oviraptor pictures.)

1. The name Oviraptor means "egg thief"...

When the remains of Oviraptor were first discovered, by the famous paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, they were perched atop what appeared to be a clutch of Protoceratops eggs. That's what prompted another researcher, Henry Fairfield Osborn, to name this dinosaur Oviraptor; adding insult to injury, he assigned it the species name philoceratops (e.g., "loves to eat Protoceratops").

2. ...but it turns out this dinosaur wasn't a thief at all.

For a full six decades after it was named, Oviraptor was the poster dinosaur for egg thievery. Then, paleontologists discovered another feathered theropod, closely related to Oviraptor, that was fossilized sitting atop what were indisputably its own eggs. We can't know for sure, but the weight of the evidence is that those alleged "Protoceratops" eggs were actually laid by Oviraptor!

3. Oviraptor brooded its eggs like modern birds...

As you can infer from the above history, Oviraptor was a relatively good parent, brooding its eggs (that is, incubating them with its body heat) until they hatched. Oviraptor figurines often portray this dinosaur gently spreading its wings over its about-to-hatch eggs--a pose which, not coincidentally, would also have helped to keep other hungry raptors and tyrannosaurs at bay.

4. ...but we don't know if this task fell to males or females.

When it comes to the animal kingdom, people tend to associate good parenting exclusively with the females of the species, which is a gross injustice. Not only can't paleontologists distinguish between male and female Oviraptors (there simply aren't enough fossil specimens to draw any conclusions), they also can't say whether it was the males, rather than the females, that brooded the eggs.

5. Oviraptor was probably covered with feathers...

Aside from its unjust reputation as an egg thief, Oviraptor is best known for being one of the most birdlike of all dinosaurs. This smallish (about 75 pounds) theropod possessed a sharp, toothless beak, and it may also have sported a chicken-like wattle. Although no direct evidence has been found, Oviraptor was almost certainly covered with a thick coat of feathers.

6. ...but that's not why it was once thought to be a "bird mimic" dinosaur.

When he described Oviraptor, Henry Fairfield Osborn made another (understandable) mistake: he classified it as an ornithomimid ("bird mimic") dinosaur, in the same family as Ornithomimus and Gallimimus. But the ornithomimids didn't come by their name because they had feathers; rather, these speedy dinosaurs were built very much like modern ostriches and emus.

7. Oviraptor probably fed on mollusks and crustaceans.

The shape of a dinosaur's mouth and jaws can tell us a lot about what it ate on any given day. Rather than munching on the eggs of ceratopsians, Oviraptor probably subsisted on mollusks and crustaceans, which it cracked open with its toothless beak. It's also not inconceivable that Oviraptor supplemented its diet with the occasional plant or small lizard, though direct proof is lacking.

8. Oviraptor lived in central Asia.

Many people are surprised to learn that Oviraptor lived not in North America or eastern Asia, but the dry, dusty plains of inner Mongolia. In fact, you may also be surprised by the identity of another, slightly earlier theropod that lived in this same region a few million years before the "egg thief"--none other than the fierce, feathered, albeit chicken-sized Velociraptor!

9. Lots of dinosaurs are classified as "oviraptors."

The name Oviraptor with a capital "O" refers to a specific genus of theropod, but small-o "oviraptors" comprise a whole family of small, Oviraptor-like dinosaurs, including the allusively named Citipati, Conchoraptor and Khaan. Typically, these feathered theropods also lived in central Asia, a hotbed of bird-like dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous period.

10. Oviraptor wasn't technically a raptor.

Confusingly, just because a dinosaur has the Greek word "raptor" in its name doesn't necessarily mean that it was a true raptor (a family of theropods characterized by the single, curving claws on their hind feet). Even more confusingly, non-raptor "raptors" were still closely related to true raptors, since all of these small theropods shared feathers and other bird-like characteristics.

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