'We Discovered a 70 Million Year Old Dinosaur Sitting on Its Own Eggs'

In the 1990s I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Beijing University in China. I really wanted to travel but at that point I couldn't afford it. While at university, I realized that part of paleontology involves field work, which would allow me to travel and so that helped me decide that it was a career I wanted to pursue. I joined several paleontology projects and started going out into the field and collecting fossils. Then I became fascinated, but my interest didn't start in childhood as happens for some people.

My expertise is actually in the origin and early evolution of mammals, rather than in dinosaurs. So, the story behind how I got involved in working with a dinosaur fossil is really interesting because it was actually a side project for me.

In Ganzhou City in southern China's Jiangxi Province there is a new railway station being built and around five years ago, a construction worker found the fossils and then the Lande Museum of Natural History in Tangshan, within the Hebei Province in China, who I work with, collected the fossil without knowing exactly what it was. I collaborate with that museum on their collection of early mammal fossils, but the museum director was looking for someone to work on this oviraptorosaur fossil. There are oviraptorosaur experts, like the paleontologist Dr Xing Xu, he wasn't available to work directly on the project, so I picked it up alongside my other work and consulted with Dr. Xu and other scientists as I worked.

Since my expertise is in early mammals, it took me longer to determine exactly what this fossil is. And it wasn't until 2021 that we were able to confirm that we have discovered the world's first oviraptorosaur preserved sitting on top of a nest of eggs with embryos inside that were about to hatch. Oviraptorosaurs existed in the "Age of Dinosaurs" and were bird-like theropod dinosaurs; something between a dinosaur and a bird.

Because we also had sediment that the fossil was found in, we were able to use geochemicals to date the sediment and determine that this dinosaur is from the late Cretaceous Period and is roughly 70 million years old. But what particularly excited me was realizing that this, and other discoveries, actually prove that the name for the oviraptorosaurs is itself actually a mistake.

In 1923, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) researcher, Roy Chapman Andrews, found an oviraptor fossil in Mongolia close by what was thought to be a Protoceratops' nest. So at the time the researchers thought that the oviraptorosaur had been eating eggs. Thus, the name oviraptorosaur was given, which loosely translates to "egg robber." It's been almost 100 years since that discovery in Mongolia, but now we know it was likely the dinosaur's own eggs that were found.

Dinosaur, science, dinosaur eggs, fossils
Dinosaur, science, dinosaur eggs, fossils

Scientifically this discovery is very important because this group of dinosaurs behaviour is very rarely preserved. You may have fossils and skeletons but it can be hard to know what behaviors dinosaurs actually exhibited. We've been able to solve a 100 year old mystery. It's also exciting for the general public, who I think are often interested in the bigger picture of the lives of dinosaurs.

Last year with the pandemic I wasn't able to do any field work, but this year I'm on sabbatical so I have had the chance to return to Southern China and continue digging.

We have been working in some red clay from the Jurassic period where we have discovered partial skeleton and teeth from both the sauropod and theropod groups of dinosaurs. Just recently we discovered several teeth and bones from a Microraptor. My team and I are hoping that we can find an entire skeleton, but the time it takes to make a significant discovery really depends on the location. If it is very rich in fossils we will probably spend five years there and keep digging.

Dinosaur, science, dinosaur eggs, fossils
Dr. Shundong Bi who was among the research team that discovered the 70million year old oviraptor was sitting on fossilized eggs of its own. Dr. Shundong Bi

If people are interested in paleontology I'd encourage them to follow their hearts. We all need to make money, but it's great if you can do something you enjoy and contribute to society at the same time. I hope that my research can inspire younger generations.

Dr. Shundong Bi is a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and research associate at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Working alongside Dr. Bi on this project were Xing Xu, paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and CMNH co-interim director and lead dinosaur paleontologist, Dr. Matt Lamanna.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.