Image: Dinosaur embryo
Heidi Richter
An artist's conception shows a Massospondylus dinosaur embryo partially out of its egg, 190 million years ago.
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updated 11/11/2010 12:39:52 PM ET 2010-11-11T17:39:52

Paleontologists have just identified the world's oldest known dinosaur embryos, according to a paper in the current Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The embryos, found in their still well-preserved eggs, date to the early Jurassic Period 190 million years ago. The researchers say they are the oldest known embryos for any land-dwelling vertebrate.

They belong to Massospondylus, a member of a group of dinosaurs called prosauropods that were ancestors to the giant, plant-eating sauropods. Sauropods are the iconic four-legged dinosaurs known for their long necks and long tails.

Professor Robert Reisz of the University of Toronto Mississauga and his colleagues made the discovery while analyzing the fossilized eggs, originally found in South Africa. Reisz’s research assistant, Diane Scott, prepared the delicate fossils under high-powered microscopes and compiled the illustrations.

“I don’t think anybody else could have done this job,” Reisz said.

The embryos are so remarkably well preserved that they permitted a complete reconstruction of the skeleton and detailed interpretations of the anatomy.

The embryos were close to hatching, revealing their ossification (how much of their skeletons had turned to bone). The fossils also show that the future hatchlings would have been "oddly-proportioned" and would have looked very different from the adults of the species, according to the researchers.

Massospondylus embryos:

  • close to 8 inches long
  • four-legged
  • relatively long front limbs
  • disproportionately large heads

In contrast...

Massospondylus adults:

  • about 16.5 feet long
  • relatively tiny heads
  • long necks
  • most likely walked on two limbs

The above suggests that as the dinosaurs matured, their necks and hind limbs grew much faster than their forelimbs and head. Later dinosaurs in this group, the sauropods, had body proportions more similar to those of the Massospondylus embryos.

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To some extent, these dinosaurs then developed as humans do today. The infancy is "awkward," as the researchers put it, and a more erect stance and evenly-proportioned body only comes later. Additionally, the embryos lack teeth. With the awkward body proportions, it's then likely that the hatchlings would have required parental care. If that's the case, these fossils also document the oldest record of parental care, according to the paleontologists.

“This project opens an exciting window into the early history and evolution of dinosaurs,” says Reisz. “Prosauropods are the first dinosaurs to diversify extensively, and they quickly became the most widely spread group, so their biology is particularly interesting as they represent in many ways the dawn of the age of dinosaurs.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: The world's seven deadliest dinosaurs

  • Copyright 1985 Mark Hallett, "Awakening of Hunger"

    Yeah, it's cliche to say Tyrannosaurus rex was deadly. But the tyrant king was likely true to the billing. Its bone-crushing jaws could splinter prey like toothpicks, after all. And the beast was big, up to 40 feet long, 20 feet tall, and may have topped the scales at nearly 16,000 pounds.

    The king walked on two legs over a vast territory in western North America at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago. Scientists wonder whether T. rex was more a lumbering scavenger or a quick and agile predator, but dead or alive, its meals were big, meaty and bloody.

    T. rex wasn't the only deadly dino, however. The globe was filled vicious killers. Click the arrows above to see more.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Family diner

    Demetrios M. Vital

    Family meals for Majungasaurus crenatissimus were often bloody affairs of the grimmest sort: Kin were the main course. The evidence of its cannibalistic ways comes from telltale tooth marks on Majungasaurus bones that match up perfectly with the size and spacing of teeth in its jaws.

    The 20-foot-long dinosaur stalked the plains of Madagascar about 70 million years ago. At that time, the crime-scene investigators said, pickings were often slim. Their data indicate Majungasaurus fed on dried out "dino jerky" from its plant-eating compatriots as well as members of its own species. Cannibalism was likely just as common among dinosaurs as it is among living animals, but the evidence is rare.

  • Brow beater

    Todd Marshall

    Eocarcharia dinops' brow was swollen into a massive band of bone. The menacing head piece may have been used as a battering ram against rivals and to attract potential mates. Its blade-shape teeth were reserved for disabling live prey and severing their body parts.

    The 110-million-year-old beast and its snout-nosed, gut-and-carcass-scavenging relative Kryptops palaios were discovered in Africa's Sahara Desert. The approximately 7-foot-tall and 25-foot-long duo likely teamed up with a third carnivore and feasted on the long-necked plant-eater Nigersaurus.

  • Vicious rocker

    Parsons

    The toothy Masiakasaurus knopfleri likely speared prey with its forward projecting front teeth and then sliced and tore the captives into chewy chunks with its bladelike rears. This type of tooth arrangement is otherwise unknown in predatory dinosaurs.

    Scientists believe the German Shepherd sized beast feasted on fish, lizards, and other critters on the southern supercontinent Gondwana in the Late Cretaceous period, about 65 to 70 million years ago.

    The first part of this dinosaur's name means "vicious lizard" and the second part is derived from the Dire Straits singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose music inspired the discoverers as they toiled on the African island nation of Madagascar.

  • Biggest carnivore?

    Prof. Rodolfo Coria / Ap

    At about 40 feet long and weighing an estimated 6 tons, Mapusaurus roseae was one of the biggest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever stalk the Earth. Bones of several individuals were discovered in one place, suggesting the giants may have hunted in packs that could have toppled perhaps the largest dinosaur that ever lived — a 100-foot-long plant eater called Argentinosaurus.

    Mapusaurus lived about 100 million years ago and was bigger than well known Tyrannosaurus rex and possibly larger than its older cousin, Gigantosaurus. Its teeth were narrow and blade like, made for slicing its prey. The bones were discovered in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

  • Going green

    MWS

    Falcarius utahensis is the living image of a vicious meat eater trying to go vegetarian. Scientists aren't sure if the bird-like relative of Velociraptor had fully kicked its taste for flesh, but its meat-cutting teeth had shrunk to leaf-cutting size and its gut had expanded sufficiently to ferment plants.

    Falcarius walked on two legs and stood about 4.5 feet tall. Head to tail, it was about 13 feet long and wielded sharp, curved, four-inch long claws — perhaps to grab a bite when it fell off the wagon? The dinosaur lived during the Early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago, in what is today Utah.

  • Plant ripper

    utah.edu

    No plants were safe from Gryposaurus monumentensis, a big boned, duck-billed dinosaur that could have eaten any vegetation it stumbled across. Its massive skull packed more than 300 teeth for slicing up fibrous greens. Hundreds more replacement teeth rested in its jawbone for the call-up to action.

    The dinosaur lived in the Late Cretaceous, about 75 million years ago on the western side of a giant, shallow ocean that split North America at that time. The plant-munching beast may have reached 30 feet long as an adult and had a 3-foot-long head.

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