Halszkaraptor escuilliei was a strange dinosaur that looked like a water bird

Reconstruction of Halszkaraptor escuilliei (Image courtesy Lukas Panzarin and Andrea Cau)
Reconstruction of Halszkaraptor escuilliei (Image courtesy Lukas Panzarin and Andrea Cau)

An article published in the journal “Nature” describes the discovery of a species of dinosaur related to Velociraptor but with semi-aquatic habits that lived about 75 million years ago in today’s Mongolia. Called Halszkaraptor escuilliei, it had physical characteristics and a life style closer to those of modern swans than to its cousins ​​of the time. For this reason, a team of researchers led by Andrea Cau of the University of Bologna believes that it was part of a new group of dinosaurs.

This fossil of Halszkaraptor escuilliei, nicknamed “Halszka”, has a curious history. Generally these studies follow discoveries made during excavations conducted with the necessary permits or after someone accidentally finds them. In this case, however, the fossil was excavated illegally, who knows when. Through totally unofficial channels it was exported from Mongolia and was part of private collections until 2015, when it was donated to the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences of Bruxellel, which has an agreement with the Mongolian government.

Andrea Cau was contacted by Belgian paleontologists to study the fossil and initially thought it was a fake because its characteristics seemed to be a mix of those of different dinosaurs. For this reason, it was submitted to a very sophisticated examination at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (Esrf), a sort of very high resolution TAC that allowed to create a very detailed 3D reproduction avoiding any damage.

The examination has first confirmed that the fossil is authentic and it’s a single animal, not specimens of different species that died together. It also allowed the researchers to reconstruct their physical characteristics. It was a small dinosaur about 80 centimeters long and about 40 centimeters tall. It was a semi-aquatic animal like certain species of modern birds such as swans, geese and ducks.

The characteristics of Halszkaraptor escuilliei suggest that it was still a predator like its cousins ​​Velociraptors, with which it shared its claws. However, it fished more than hunted using its long neck and its beak to catch fish on the banks of the lakes that made up its habitat. For these reasons, the researchers classified it in the Dromaeosauridae family. However, the researchers believe it’s part a subfamily they called Halszkaraptorinae along with the genera Mahakala and Hulsanpes, other predatory theropods of the Cretaceous period.

The fossil shows no traces of plumage but according to researchers it was probably covered with feathers like its closest relatives. In these cases it’s often necessary to hypothesize some characteristics of an animal when the fossils are not enough to define them and some of them are deduced from similarities with other similar species. The species Halszkaraptor escuilliei is strange for the mix of characteristics but thanks to very sophisticated exams it’s possible to shed light on this genus of dinosaurs.

Pascal Godefroit, Paul Tafforeau and Andrea Cau with the Halszkaraptor escuilliei fossil (Photo courtesy ESRF/P. Jayet)
Pascal Godefroit, Paul Tafforeau and Andrea Cau with the Halszkaraptor escuilliei fossil (Photo courtesy ESRF/P. Jayet)

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