By Jennifer Viegas
A newly discovered dinosaur, Yulong mini, was appropriately named, as the remains of its chicken-sized offspring are now among the smallest dinosaurs ever found, according to a new study.
The tiny baby dinosaurs, described in the journal Naturwissenschaften, were oviraptorids, a.k.a. "egg thieves." These non-flying dinosaurs resembled modern birds, except adults of some species could grow to over 26 feet long.
"Yulong looks like chicken with a tail," lead author Junchang Lü told Discovery News. "Its behavior was similar to living birds too. Based on the primitive oviraptors such as Caudipteryx, Yulong should be feathered, although we could not find feathers due to the poor preservation condition."
Lü, of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, and his colleagues analyzed the dinosaur remains, which were unearthed at Henan Province in central China. In addition to Lü, the team included researchers from the Henan Geological Museum as well as Philip Currie from the University of Alberta.
While adult dinosaurs were found in the general region of the excavation, they were not directly with the babies, suggesting that members of this species did not require parental care when young.
It has been widely accepted that oviraptors were carnivores. One earlier specimen, for example, was found with the preserved remains of a lizard in its stomach. The new study, however, challenges that theory.
In terms of the new oviraptor fossils, "based on their hind limb proportions, the pattern is more commonly seen in herbivores than in carnivores, thus indicating that they were herbivores," Lü said.
He did, however, add that the jaw structure of this dinosaur could have handled a few meaty edibles.
"It provided strong bite force when (the dinosaur) ate hard foods such as nuts, mollusks and even eggs," he explained.
Currie, though, described Yulong mini as having a "sedentary lifestyle that did not involve the pursuit of similar-sized prey."
The dinosaur might then have rather passively poked around for food, similar to how some birds today forage.
Yulong mini itself was good eats.
Just as many humans today love chicken, it seems that other dinosaurs enjoyed chowing down on Yulong. Remains of several large carnivorous dinosaurs, including T. rex, were found in the area and likely preyed on the more sedentary dinosaurs, the researchers believe.
While Yulong mini and other oviraptorid dinosaurs resembled chickens and other modern birds and appear to have behaved somewhat like them, they were definitely non-avian dinosaurs and not birds.
"They could not have been the ancestors to modern birds," Lü explained. "They (exemplify) convergent evolution and went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous."
That was around 65 million years ago, when the world's non-avian dinosaurs all went extinct.