Alberta researchers help crack identity of dinosaur eggs found decades ago

Research into the largest dinosaur egg discovery took decades to hatch and Alberta researchers were in the thick of the findings.

Giant eggs discovered in China 30 year ago

Researchers concluded fossils discovered in China nearly 30 years ago are related to feathered caenagnathids or oviraptorosaurs which once inhabited what is now Alberta. (Illustration by Zhao Chuang)

Alberta researchers have helped crack the identity of the largest dinosaur egg discovery ever made.

A farmer in China unearthed the eggs — each roughly half a metre long — on his land some 30 years ago. A scientific paper on the fortuitous find was published Tuesday in the open-access journal Nature Communications.

University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie has been studying the eggs since 1993. In 2015, Currie, accompanied by the farmer who first collected them, returned to the discovery site in north-central China's Henan province.

"It was the most astounding thing. The whole area had been ripped up by enormous equipment terracing the mountainsides to plant walnut trees," Currie recalled in a news release.

"The one slope remaining was where these giant eggs came from, and we found shells from the same specimen three decades later." 
Illustration of Beibeilong embryo and egg fossil, with reconstruction of skeleton and fleshed-out models to the right. (Image by Zhao Chuang)

Currie said he and an international team of paleontologists thought they were tyrannosaur eggs at first.

"But when we saw the embryo, it screwed everything up."

After examining the skull, the researchers concluded the animal is related to feathered caenagnathids or oviraptorosaurs which once inhabited what is now Alberta.

Oviraptorosaur translates to "egg thief" because specimens have often been found near nests and their jaws are adapted for eating eggs.

But in this case, researchers believe the beasts were actually protecting their eggs from predators.

Currie said the nest found in China was incomplete. It only contained between six and nine eggs, whereas a normal oviraptorosaur nest would have 30 to 40 spread three metres across in a ring formation.

The mother would have situated herself in the middle to protect her progeny. 
University of Alberta paleontologist Phil Currie at a dig in Edmonton in May. (John Robertson/CBC)

"She would have been able to stretch her arms out protectively over the eggs. This might have been the reason these animals developed the long feathers behind their arms to ensure the eggs were covered."

Although the eggs are the largest ever found they are still small in relation to the creature's adult size. The animal's bones indicate it would have weighed two tonnes once fully grown.

Currie said it was lucky such well-preserved eggs were found.

"You need exactly the right conditions. If there's even a little bit of acidity in the soil, the eggs will just dissolve," he said.

"Add that to the fact that eggs are delectable little meals for scavengers, and there are a lot of reasons why finding dinosaur eggs and embryos is extremely rare."