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The parrot-like dinosaurs, through some peculiar evolutionary step, lost a finger some 68 million years ago. On the surface, the discovery might be seen as shallow. However, on further inspection, archaeologists and scientists alike were shocked, as the discovery offered a completely new species of oviraptor and understanding of the dinosaur’s evolutionary lineage.
Feathered, omnivorous, with giant, toothless beaks – practically a large parrot – remains of the Oksoko avarsan were unearthed in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.
Studied by researchers from the University of Edinburgh, their findings showed how the newly discovered dinosaurs had just two fingers on each forelimb, one less than other members of the oviraptor family.
It is the first time limb loss has ever been observed in a three-fingered family of oviraptors.
Researchers say it could be a sign of the animals’ adaptability, which enabled them to spread across the continent during the Late Cretaceous Period in which they thrived.
The scientists were able to find other, smaller, nuggets of information about the alien bird.
In youth, they found that the Oksoko was a social creature after unearthing scores of young skeletons huddled together.
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Leader of the study, Dr Gregory Funston, from the university’s School of Geosciences, told BBC Science Focus magazine how rare the find was in the 21st century.
He said: “Oksoko avarsan is interesting because the skeletons are very complete and the way they were pressured resting together shows that juveniles roamed together in groups.
“But more importantly, its two-fingered hand prompted us to look at the way the hand and forelimb changed throughout the evolution of oviraptors, which hadn’t been studied before.
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“This revealed some unexpected trends that are a key piece in the puzzle of why oviraptors were so diverse before the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.”
The team were also able to trace the evolutionary crescendo of the loss of limb down to a tee.
The reduction in size and eventual loss of a third finger across the oviraptor’s history was found to be in tandem with migrations to new geographic areas.
This was associated specifically to areas now identified as North America and the Gobi Desert.
Interestingly, the fact that oviraptors were able to evolve their forearms at such a pace suggests they could alter both their mental and physical makeup in a new location at astounding rates – far quicker than other dinosaurs.
This, researchers say, enabled them to diversify and multiple at unprecedented levels.
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