Halszkaraptorines were a group of small dromaeosaurids known only from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. They were odd little raptors with flattened snouts, long necks, and flipper-like arms – features that suggest they were specialized for swimming, making them the second known lineage of semi-aquatic non-avian dinosaurs after the spinosaurids.
This “duck-raptor” interpretation has been a little controversial since it was first proposed in 2017, but we’ve just gotten some more evidence for it in the form of an entirely new halszkaraptorine.
Natovenator polydontus lived in what is now the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, around 72 million years ago. The size of a small duck, about 45cm long (18″), it had jaws full of many needle-like teeth, a long flexible goose-like neck, and a streamlined body with a wide flattened ribcage convergently shaped like those of modern diving birds.
Although it had long strong legs, these don’t show much in the way of aquatic specializations and would have been used more for walking and running on land. Instead it may have used its flipper-like arms to propel itself through the water, like modern penguins or auks.
It probably had a lifestyle similar to modern mergansers, swimming and diving in lakes and rivers, and preying on fish, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates.
Halszkaraptor escuilliei, a dromaeosaurid (“raptor”) dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia (~75-71 mya). It’s known from a single near-complete skeleton and would have been about the size of a modern mallard duck, around 60cm long (2′).
It had some very odd features for a raptor, with many small sharp backwards-pointing teeth, crocodile-like sensory pits on its snout, a long flexible neck, small flipper-like arms, a relatively short tail, and a more upright body posture than its other relatives. All these traits together suggest it may have been semi-aquatic, which is a pretty big deal since the only other group of non-avian dinosaurs known to have developed adaptations for life in the water were the spinosaurids.
The fossil was originally illegally excavated by fossil poachers and was owned by private collectors for several years, but it has now been returned to science and is due to be repatriated to Mongolia. With its odd anatomy and the exact origin of the specimen being unknown, there’s some skepticism about whether Halszkaraptor represents a genuine animal or an elaborate fake chimera – but synchrotron scans of the fossil and its similarity to previously-discovered more fragmentary short-armed raptors like Mahakala suggest that it is real, and it really is that weird.
Utahraptor ostrommaysorum lived during the Early Cretaceous (~130-124 mya) in Utah, USA, and was the largest known dromaeosaurid. Reaching lengths of around 6m long (20′), it’s often compared in size to the fictional raptors of Jurassic Park.
Recent discoveries show it had some weird proportions compared to its relatives – a thick stocky body, chunky legs, smaller arms, a shorter and more flexible tail, and a large deep skull with an oddly curved lower jaw.
But we still don’t know very much about it… yet.
There’s a huge slab of rock full of Utahraptor fossils just waiting to be extracted and studied. There are at least six raptors in there ranging from babies to adults, hinting at the presence of a family group or even pack hunting behavior, and potentially other animals and new discoveries too – but the main roadblock for this project is lack of funding.
The paleontologists involved have turned to crowdfunding to attempt to raise enough money for essential equipment and the services of a professional fossil preparator, but they’re still only at about 10% of their goal.
So this first week of April is #UtahraptorWeek in the paleontology community, raising awareness of this fascinating giant raptor and how close we are to finding out so much more about it. Spread the word, and if you’re able to please consider helping out the Utahraptor Project on GoFundMe.