Fossil find proves dinosaurs looked after their babies

The mystery of whether dinosaurs were indifferent parents or cared for their young may have been solved by a discovery in China.

The mystery of whether dinosaurs were indifferent parents or cared for their young may have been solved by a discovery in China.

More than 100 million years ago an adult dinosaur was buried alive while still trying to protect a clutch of 34 offspring. The case of the parrot lizard dinosaur, psittacosaurus, could be the first in which a dinosaur was clearly showing a degree of parental care beyond guarding a nest of eggs or a clutch of its newly hatched offspring, scientists said.

An analysis of the fossilised skeletons of the young psittacosaurus suggest they could have been several months old. They were physically old enough to fend for themselves but still seemed to need their mother.

A study of the fossils, published in the journal Nature , suggests they were milling together as a family group when they were killed by a sudden mudslide. "The psittacosaurus aggregation provides compelling evidence for post-hatching care among dinosaurs," says the team of scientists from the Dalian Natural History Museum in China and Montana State University in Bozeman.

The argument over whether or not dinosaurs were doting parents has raged for decades. Until recently only birds and mammals were thought to exhibit true parental care.

However, in the 1970s naturalists discovered that crocodiles helped their young to hatch and carried them to water. Then in the 1980s scientists found that a dinosaur they had dubbed oviraptor - the egg-stealer - because its remains were found near a nest, had been trying to incubate the eggs, rather than steal them.

Subsequent discoveries of fossilised eggs and nests in America and Mongolia suggest that many dinosaurs may have cared for their young after hatching. Some laid eggs in earth nests scooped in the soil and returned to feed the young after they emerged.

Other studies suggest that some of the legs of some dinosaur young were too weak for them to roam very far from a nest, which suggests that parents brought food back for them at least in the first days after hatching.

However, the latest find suggests that parental care may have extended beyond the stage of a nest full of newly hatched young. At least some dinosaurs may have behaved more like birds in terms of parental care than today's lizards, which rarely take part in raising or caring for their young.

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