A ‘Chicken from Hell’ Dinosaur

Note: News releases from Carnegie and Smithsonian follow this one.

March 19, 2014 – Scientists from Carnegie and Smithsonian museums and the University of Utah today unveiled the discovery, naming and description of a sharp-clawed, 500-pound, bird-like dinosaur that roamed the Dakotas with T. rex 66 million years ago and looked like an 11 ½-foot-long “chicken from hell.”

“It was a giant raptor, but with a chicken-like head and presumably feathers. The animal stood about 10 feet tall, so it would be scary as well as absurd to encounter,” says University of Utah biology postdoctoral fellow Emma Schachner, a co-author of a new study of the dinosaur. It was published online today in PLOS ONE, a journal of the Public Library of Science.

The study’s lead author, Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, says: “We jokingly call this thing the ‘chicken from hell,’ and I think that’s pretty appropriate.”

The beaked dinosaur’s formal name is Anzu wyliei Anzu after a bird-like demon in Mesopotamian mythology, and wyliei after a boy named Wylie, the dinosaur-loving grandson of a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh trustee.

Three partial skeletons of the dinosaur – almost making up a full skeleton – were excavated from the uppermost level of the Hell Creek rock formation in North and South Dakota – a formation known for abundant fossils of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. The new dinosaur was 11 ½ feet long, almost 5 feet tall at the hip and weighed an estimated 440 to 660 pounds. Its full cast is on display at the Carnegie Museum.

Schachner and Lamanna were joined in the new study and description of three specimens by Hans-Dieter Sues and Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

“I am really excited about this discovery because Anzu is the largest oviraptorosaur found in North America,” she says. “Oviraptorosaurs are a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to birds and often have strange, cassowary-like crests on their heads.” (The cassowary is a flightless bird in New Guinea and Australia related to emus and ostriches.)

Anzu is also “one of the youngest oviraptorosaurs known, meaning it lived very close to the dinosaur extinction event” blamed on an asteroid striking Earth 65 million years ago, Schachner says.

The researchers believe Anzu, with large sharp claws, was an omnivore, eating vegetation, small animals and perhaps eggs while living on a wet floodplain. The dinosaur apparently got into some scrapes.

“Two of the specimens display evidence of pathology,” Schachner says. “One appears to have a broken and healed rib, and the other has evidence of some sort of trauma to a toe.”

Having a nearly complete skeleton of Anzu wyliei sheds light on a category of oviraptorosaur theropod dinosaurs named caenagnathids, which have been known for a century, but only from limited fossil evidence.

Like many “new” dinosaurs, Anzu wyliei fossils were discovered some years ago, and it took more time for researchers to study the fossils and write and publish a formal scientific description. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Schachner helped Lyson excavate the least complete specimen – six bones from the neck, forelimbs and shoulder – in North Dakota. The Carnegie Museum obtained the other specimens.

At a scientific meeting in 2005 Lamanna, Lyson and Schachner realized they had fossils of the same new species of dinosaur. They soon began collaborating on the new study and asked Sues to join them because he was an expert on this type of dinosaur, Schachner says.

“It took years since all of us had busy schedules, and I moved to Utah in 2010 to work on reptile respiratory evolution,” she says.

The study’s four authors finally met for a week at the Carnegie Museum to work on the dinosaur together. Among other tasks, Schachner illustrated and photographed some of the bones.

She says the process was “really exciting. Naming a dinosaur is one of those things I’ve wanted to be involved in since I was a kid.”

After the embargo expires, the study will be online here.

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CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

NEWS RELEASE

UNDER STRICT EMBARGO until Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 5 p.m. EDT

For more information, contact:

Lauren Buches
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
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BuchesL@carnegiemuseums.org

Dr. Matthew Lamanna
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
412.578.2696
LamannaM@carnegiemnh.org

Paleontologists Announce Discovery of Anzu wyliei

the Nearly Complete ”Chicken from Hell,” Member of Mysterious Dinosaur Group

Findings published in the journal PLOS ONE

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania…A team of researchers has announced the discovery of a bizarre, bird-like dinosaur, named Anzu wyliei, that provides paleontologists with their first good look at a dinosaur group that has been shrouded in mystery for almost a century. Anzu was described from three specimens that collectively preserve almost the entire skeleton, giving scientists a remarkable opportunity to study the anatomy and evolutionary relationships of Caenagnathidae (pronounced SEE-nuh-NAY-thih-DAY)—the long-mysterious group of theropod dinosaurs to which Anzu belongs. The scientific paper describing the discovery appears today in the well-known and freely-accessible journal PLOS ONE.

The three described fossil skeletons of Anzu were unearthed in North and South Dakota, from roughly 66 million-year-old rocks of the Hell Creek Formation, a rock unit celebrated for its abundant fossils of famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops.

The team of scientists who studied Anzu was led by Dr. Matthew Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Dr. Lamanna’s collaborators include Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues and Dr. Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and Dr. Emma Schachner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. According to Dr. Lamanna, “Anzu is far and away the most complete caenagnathid that has ever been discovered. After nearly a century of searching, we paleontologists finally have the fossils to show what these creatures looked like from virtually head to toe. And in almost every way, they’re even weirder than we imagined.”

Hell’s Chicken

At roughly 11 feet long and five feet tall at the hip, Anzu would have resembled a gigantic flightless bird, more than a ‘typical’ theropod dinosaur such as T. rex. Its jaws were tipped with a toothless beak, and its head sported a tall, rounded crest similar to that of a cassowary (a large ground bird native to Australia and New Guinea). The neck and hind legs were long and slender, also comparable to a cassowary or ostrich. Although the Anzu specimens preserve only bones, close relatives of this dinosaur have been found with fossilized feathers, strongly suggesting that the new creature was feathered too. The resemblance to birds ends there, however: the forelimbs of Anzu were tipped with large, sharp claws, and the tail was long and robust. Says Dr. Lamanna, “We jokingly call this thing the ‘Chicken from Hell,’ and I think that’s pretty appropriate. So we named it after Anzu, a bird-like demon in ancient mythology.”

The species is named for a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh Trustee’s grandson, Wylie.

Not only do the fossils of Anzu wyliei paint a picture of this particular species, they shed light on an entire group of dinosaurs, the first evidence of which was discovered almost 100 years ago. In 1924, paleontologist Charles Whitney Gilmore described the species Chirostenotes pergracilis from a pair of fossil hands found a decade earlier in ~74 million-year-old rocks in Alberta, Canada. Later, in 1940, Caenagnathus collinsi was named, based on a peculiar lower jaw from the same beds. More recently, after studies of these and other fragmentary fossils, Hans Sues and other paleontologists determined that Chirostenotes and Caenagnathus belonged to the same dinosaur group, Caenagnathidae, and that these animals were close cousins of Asian oviraptorid theropods such as Oviraptor.

Asian relations

Oviraptor (‘egg thief’) is widely known because the first fossil skeleton of this animal, described in 1924, was found atop a nest of dinosaur eggs, suggesting that the creature had died in the act of raiding the nest. This thinking prevailed until the 1990s, when the same type of egg was found with a baby oviraptorid inside, demonstrating that, rather than a nest plunderer, Oviraptor was a caring parent that perished while protecting its eggs. More than a dozen oviraptorid species have been discovered, all in Mongolia and China, and many are known from beautifully-preserved, complete or nearly complete skeletons. Additionally, beginning in the 1990s, several small, primitive relatives of oviraptorids were unearthed in much older, ~125 million-year-old rocks in northeastern China. Many of these are also represented by complete skulls or skeletons, some of which preserve fossilized feathers. Researchers have established that caenagnathids, oviraptorids, and these more archaic Chinese species are closely related to one another, and have united them as the theropod group Oviraptorosauria. The occurrence of oviraptorosaurs in both Asia and North America was not a surprise to paleontologists, because these continents were frequently connected during the Mesozoic Era (the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’), allowing dinosaurs and other land animals to roam between them. However, because their fossils were so incomplete, caenagnathids remained the most poorly known members of Oviraptorosauria, and indeed, one of the least understood of all major dinosaur groups. “For many years, caenagnathids were known only from a few bits of the skeleton, and their appearance remained a big mystery,” says Dr. Sues.

More fossils, more knowledge

The nearly completely represented skeleton of Anzu opens a window into the anatomy of this and other caenagnathid species. Armed with this wealth of new information, Dr. Lamanna and his team were able to reconstruct the evolution of these extraordinary animals in more detail than ever before. Analysis of the relationships of Anzu reaffirmed that caenagnathids form a natural grouping within Oviraptorosauria: Anzu, Caenagnathus, Chirostenotes, and other North American oviraptorosaurs are more closely related to each other than they are to most of their Asian cousins—a finding that had been disputed in recent years. Furthermore, the team’s analysis confirmed the recent hypothesis that the enormous (and aptly-named) Gigantoraptor—at a weight of at least 1.5 tons, the largest oviraptorosaur known to science—is an unusual member of Caenagnathidae as well, instead of an oviraptorid as had initially been proposed. “We’re finding that caenagnathids were an amazingly diverse bunch of dinosaurs,” says Dr. Lamanna. “Whereas some were turkey-sized, others—like Anzu and Gigantoraptor—were the kind of thing you definitely wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Apparently these oviraptorosaurs occupied a much wider range of body sizes and ecologies than we previously thought.”

The anatomy and ancient environment of Anzu provide insight into the diet and habitat preferences of caenagnathids as well. Although the preferred food of these oviraptorosaurs remains something of a puzzle, Dr. Lamanna and collaborators think that caenagnathids were probably omnivores—like humans, animals that could eat either meat or plants. Moreover, studies of the rocks in which several of the most complete caenagnathid skeletons have been found show that these strata were laid down in humid floodplain environments, suggesting that these dinosaurs favored such habitats. In this way, caenagnathids appear to have differed greatly from their oviraptorid cousins, all of which have been found in rocks that were deposited under arid to semi-arid conditions . “Over the years, we’ve noticed that Anzu and some other Hell Creek Formation dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, are often found in mudstone rock that was deposited on ancient floodplains. Other dinosaurs, like duckbills, are found in sandstone deposited in or next to rivers,” says Dr. Lyson, who found his first Hell Creek fossil on his family’s ranch in North Dakota when he was only six years old.

Anzu led a life that was fraught with danger. In addition to sharing its Cretaceous world with the most notorious carnivore of all time—T. rex—this oviraptorosaur seems to have gotten hurt a lot as well. Two of the three specimens show clear evidence of injuries: one has a broken and healed rib, while the other has an arthritic toe bone that may have been caused by an avulsion fracture (where a tendon ripped a piece off the bone to which it was attached). Says Dr. Schachner, “These animals were clearly able to survive quite a bit of trauma, as two of the specimens show signs of semi-healed damage. Whether these injuries were the result of combat between two individuals or an attack by a larger predator remains a mystery.”

As much insight as the Anzu skeletons provide, paleontologists still have much to learn about North American oviraptorosaurs. Ongoing studies of these and other important fossils promise to remove more of the mystery surrounding these remarkable bird-like creatures. “For nearly a hundred years, we paleontologists knew almost nothing about these dinosaurs,” concludes Dr. Lamanna. “Now, thanks to Anzu, we’re finally starting to figure them out.”

A fully-articulated cast of Anzu wyliei is on public view in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is among the top natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of 22 million objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. Carnegie Museum of Natural History generates new scientific knowledge, advances science literacy, and inspires visitors of all ages to become passionate about science, nature, and world cultures. More information is available by calling 412.622.3131 or by visiting the website.

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Smithsonian Collaborates with Team of Paleontologists to

Reveal New Species of Large, Feathered Dinosaur

Fossils Present First In-Depth Look at Oviraptorosaurs in North America

A team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Utah has described an unusual bird-like dinosaur previously unknown to science, resembling a cross between a modern emu and a reptile. The new species, Anzu wyliei, lived 68 to 66 million years ago and was identified from three partial skeletons collected from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation in North and South Dakota. The species belongs to Oviraptorosauria, a group of dinosaurs mostly known from fossils found in Central and East Asia. The fossils of Anzu provide, for the first time, a detailed picture of the anatomy, biology and evolutionary relationships of North American oviraptorosaurs. A detailed report about the team’s research is published by PLOS ONE March 19.

Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History, and Tyler Lyson, a postdoctoral fellow at the museum, played significant roles in describing and discovering the fossils and participated in the analysis of A. wyliei, recognizing its status as a new species. Lyson was responsible for the discovery and excavation of one of the three partially complete fossils analyzed by the team; the other two more complete fossils were discovered by private collectors, including Mike Triebold and the Nuss family. All three fossils are now housed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Sues and Lyson collaborated with lead author Matthew Lamanna, assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Emma Schachner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, in describing the new species.

“For almost a hundred years, the presence of oviraptosaurs in North America was only known from a few bits of skeleton, and the details of their appearance and biology remained a mystery,” said Sues. “With the discovery of A. wyliei, we finally have the fossil evidence to show what this species looked like and how it is related to other dinosaurs.”

Anzu wyliei’s Appearance and Biology

The three Anzu specimens preserve almost the entire skeleton of this species, giving scientists their first in-depth look at its striking and unusual anatomy. A. wyliei was roughly 11 feet long and 5 feet tall at the hip. Except for its long tail, it resembled a large flightless bird, with feathers on its arms and tail, a toothless beak and a tall crest on top of its skull. The neck and hind legs were long and slender, similar to those of an ostrich. Unlike in birds, the forelimbs of A. wyliei were tipped with large, sharp claws. The structure of the skull suggests that Anzu may have been an omnivore, and its fossils were found in humid floodplain sediments, like many of the other species excavated from the Hell Creek Formation.

“Over the years, we’ve noticed that Anzu and some other Hell Creek Formation dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, are often found in mudstone rock that was deposited on ancient floodplains,” said Lyson. “Other dinosaurs like duckbills are found in sandstone deposited in or next to rivers.”

The fossils of A. wyliei also offer clues about the evolutionary relationships between its family, the Caenagnathidae (pronounced SEE-nuh-NAY-thih-DAY), and the Asian Oviraptoridae. The scientists found that caenagnathids were amazingly diverse, including species that were as small as turkeys and as large as Anzu.

Hell Creek Formation Fossils Highlighted in Upcoming Smithsonian Fossil Exhibition

The National Museum of Natural History will showcase dinosaurs and other fossils from the world in which Anzu lived as part of its upcoming temporary exhibition, “The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World,” which opens Nov. 25. The exhibition will feature specimens from the Hell Creek and Lance formations, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. These rock formations date from about 68 to 66 million years ago.

“The Hell Creek Formation has been intensely studied by paleontologists for more than a hundred years, and we’re still finding phenomenal specimens,” said Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “We are excited and honored to continue sharing our collection of fossil discoveries with our visitors for years to come.”

In 2013, the National Museum of Natural History announced a 50-year loan agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transfer a T. rex skeleton to the Smithsonian for eventual display in the museum’s new dinosaur hall, scheduled to open in 2019. The skeleton was excavated from the Hell Creek Formation, and it is one of the most complete T. rex specimens ever discovered. The T. rex is set to arrive at the Smithsonian April 15. The last day for the public to visit the current dinosaur hall will be April 27, after which it will close for renovation.

Media Contacts For This Story

postdoctoral fellow in biology
Cell Phone: 610-724-7583
Email address: eschachner@gmail.com