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Dino of the week: the Apatoraptor - In the same family as T. Rex but with a large beak instead of large teeth

August 25 , 2016

by Dave Dormer

This dinosaur wasn't discovered until after it was already at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and is currently gracing the cover of the prestigious Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The Apatoraptor.

One of the province's rarest dinosaur groups, the Apatoraptor belonged to the same branch of the dinosaur family tree as the T. Rex and Velociraptor — only they had big beaks rather than big teeth.

As part of the summer-long series Backyard Dinosaurs — which will feature a different dinosaur found in Alberta each week — University of Alberta paleontologist Scott Persons explained to The Homestretch how it was discovered after it was already in the museum. Here's a partial transcription of that interview.

Dino of the week: the Parasaurolophus

​​Dino of the week: the Edmontosaurus
Q: How did it end up being discovered while it was already in the museum?

A: It was found in the field over 23 years ago and sent to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and the Tyrrell museum is arguably, I think, the hardest working dinosaur museum in the world, because Alberta has a huge wealth of fossil resources and that means the paleontologists there have to prioritize.

They have to decide what specimens they're going to put the effort into doing the final preparation and the study on, and unfortunately, the skeleton of Apatoraptor had been identified in the field as belonging to a different kind of dinosaur, an Ornithomimid, which is in Alberta at least, really, really common. So, that made the skeleton a low priority, so it went to the museum and got put on a shelf. You can imagine how surprised they were to discover it was actually this much rarer kind.
Q: Who finally figured it out?

A: It's at this point in our dinosaur mystery story that our detective arrives, and that's a guy by the name of Greg Funston, he's actually a good friend of mine. He is, right now, a graduate student at the University of Alberta and he loves Oviraptorosaurs.

They are his favourite group of dinosaurs to work on and he knows their anatomy probably better than anyone else. When he saw the specimen on display he got really excited about it and arranged to study it after the exhibit was over. He compared it to the other skeletons of these different Oviraptorosaurs that were known and he's the guy who realized what they had was a brand new species, totally new to science and he gave it the name Apatoraptor.
Q: What does the name mean?

A: The name actually means deceptive thief. That is a reference to the fact it took so long to figure out what the animal was, and it had that ability to sort of hide in plain sight.

It's a great name, it's easy to pronounce ... but it's also worth noting Greg is having a little bit of historic fun with his favourite group of dinosaurs because the name Oviraptorosaurs actually means egg thief lizards and that's because when the very first Oviraptorosaurs were found, not in Alberta but in the Gobi desert of Mongolia, the skeleton was found next to a clutch of dinosaur eggs, and the paleontologist thought, 'this critter belongs with the carnivorous dinosaurs, why is it next to these eggs and it's got no teeth, maybe this is specialized egg-thieving critter that would take a big dinosaur egg, crush it in its toothless beak and slurp down the contents.'

So Oviraptorosaurs got a bad rap for a long time, until later expeditions discovered more Oviraptorosaurs next to more eggs, in fact some of them sitting on top of nests of eggs. Then they discovered the embryonic skeletons of Oviraptorosaurs inside those eggs. They weren't there stealing these eggs, they were tending to their own nests. So as the name Apatorator reminds us, it was a deception to think of these dinosaurs as thieves.



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