After having been hidden away in a private collection for a decade-and-a-half, a new, extremely novel species of dinosaur has been discovered — and it’s one that’s odd-looking enough for researchers to have assumed at first that it might have been a fake. While its body resembles the infamous Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame, it has a swan-like head and neck, and what appear to be penguin-like flippers, in place of the grasping arms that would typically be found on fossils like this.
"It was so strange that we suspected that it might have been a chimera — a mix of different skeletons glued together. It wouldn’t be the first time," explains Andrea Cau, from the University of Bologna. "We had to be sure that it was a real dinosaur and not a fake."
Originally excavated in Mongolia around fifteen years ago, the 15-inch fossil of what came to be named Halszkaraptor escuilliei (pronounced "hull-shka-raptor") was smuggled out of the country and passed through private collections in Japan and Britain, before being bought by French collector François Escuillié. Escuillié enlisted the help of paleontologist Pascal Godefroit in identifying what the strange-looking creature might be.
The scans used by Godefroit and Cau to determine the fossil’s authenticity also unveiled further details that added to the creature’s strangeness: aside from the apparent swan-like neck, its duck-like beak had rows of teeth — more than twice as many as the typical dinosaur — and stubby, paddle-like forelimbs, more akin to the flippers of a penguin, than that of what is found on most theropods, or bird-like dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor.
While it has the long legs and the curved claws emblematic of Velociraptor, Godefroit and his team believe that Halszkaraptor may have waded in shallow waters like a heron, and used its flipper-like forelimbs to chase its prey through the water like a modern-day cormorant. It also appears to be suited to hunting in both the water and on dry land, and may have adapted to take advantage of wet environments that experienced periodic episodes of drought.
The Halszkaraptor escuilliei fossil is expected to be repatriated back to Mongolia in the near future, but will be housed in Brussels for the next year for further investigation. The creature is named after Polish paleontologist Halszka Osmólska, the discoverer of more than a dozen dinosaur species in Mongolia, and also the collector that brought the fossil to the researchers’ attention, François Escuillié.