Halszka Fossil: Bizarre, Vicious Duck Dinosaur That Could Run, Fly and Swim Discovered

An artist's recreation of Halszkaraptor. Lukas Panzarin

Take the claws of the infamous Velociraptor, stick them onto the flippers of a penguin and the stilt legs of a wading bird, then top the whole thing off with the long, flexible neck of a predatorial reptile. That was the surprisingly weird combination paleontologists discovered in a fossil that has now been identified as a brand new species in an article published in the journal Nature.

"The first time I examined the specimen, I even questioned whether it was a genuine fossil," lead author Andrea Cau, a paleontologist at the Geological Museum Capellini in Bologna, said in a press release. That's because the fossil, which has been named Halszkaraptor escuilliei, or Halszka for short, contains a weird mishmash of traits scientists are used to seeing from very different species.

It has the claws of a Velociraptor, the long, flexible neck of a predatorial reptile and the flippers of a penguin, which may have let it swim. It has tiny teeth, and many more of them than most of its relatives does, and its bones are arranged like those of a modern duck.

An artist's depiction of what Halszkaraptor may have looked like. Lukas Panzarin

The new species's most famous close relatives are things like Velociraptors—large, terrifying predators. "Seeing a member of this family transformed into a swan-like animal was a bit of a shock," Thomas Holtz, Jr., a paleontologist at the University of Maryland who specializes in therapods, one of the umbrella groups of dinosaurs to which this species belongs but who wasn't involved in this research, wrote in an email to Newsweek.

"However, that is the way evolution works: not by aiming for a particular end result, but branching and diversifying into different lineages," Holtz continued. He points to other recently discovered members of this group, called dromaeosaurids: which diversify the group. "So adding another body plan (in this case, a tiny toothed pseudo-goose with heron-like legs) to the list makes sense."

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The fossil itself isn't a new discovery—in fact, scientists don't know when it was first dug up. That's because it was looted from a very well known Mongolian fossil deposit, then held privately before being brought back into the scientific realm in 2015. Because of that history, paleontologists actually examined the remains, which were still partially embedded in rock, with a device called a synchrotron.

That's a fancy physics machine, a type of particle accelerator, but when it isn't trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, it can also be used to determine whether a fossil specimen is actually intact or has been tampered with. The analysis told the team behind the new paper that the fossil represented a real dinosaur, and that they could take its bizarre traits at face value.

It may be weird, but it's truthfully and fascinatingly weird, not artificially weird.