Natovenator polydontus

Imagine prehistoric cormorant, a waterfowl that dives deep and does not come to the surface until it is full of fish. That’s probably what Natovenator polydontus it was like. This the new dinosaur species closely resemble a deep-diving duck and further highlight the diversity of species that likely existed during the age of dinosaurs.

In a new study published in the December 2022 issue of the journal Biology of Communicationsresearchers have revealed that N. polydontus was a non-avian, duck-sized, semi-aquatic species that probably lived in what is now the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. It had a long neck that would have made this semi-marine species well positioned to hunt in the lake it probably called home 77 million years ago. It would have looked similar to a diving bird with its serrated beak and front fins that were perfect for paddling. But interestingly, its muzzle was flat like a bill, not like a beak.

“Its streamlined body was perfectly adapted for swimming and hunting underwater,” says Sungjin Leestudy author and researcher at Seoul National University.

Read more: Why were prehistoric marine reptiles so huge?

What the world would have looked like 77 million years ago

Researchers aren’t entirely sure when N. polydontus lived but believed to have been around the Late Cretaceous period along with other dinosaurs such as Electrosaurus a large predator that resembled Tyrannosaurus — and Nemegtosaurus — a huge herbivore that feasts high in the trees.

Yet the question arises, how did a duck end up in the desert? Researchers say that in the Gobi desert, the world would have looked different than it does today. This would have been a freshwater habitat where many aquatic species lived and it was also seasonally dry. We know this because we find aquatic arthropods in the sediment that also housed them N. polydontus, indicating that water was at least part of the habitat.

Lee says the species had many teeth, perfect for catching and holding its slippery prey. “It probably ate mostly fish, but we don’t know that for sure,” says Lee.

He says it is not clear how the species became extinct, as they have only found a few similar specimens so far. But he doesn’t think he was still alive when a massive asteroid slammed into him Earth 66 million years ago.

Read more: The 5 mass extinctions that have swept our planet

Why is this new discovery so important?

The discovery is important because it shows us a new type of species and proves that non-avian dinosaurs may have been semi-aquatic. “For a long time we thought that all non-avian dinosaurs were terrestrial, and this discovery proves otherwise,” says Lee. We know it was semi-aquatic because of its streamlined body, a shape that makes it hydrodynamic.

Thomas R. Holtz Jrvertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland, agrees that the study is important because it adds to our knowledge of this newly discovered group of small carnivorous dinosaurs called Halscarptoria. This new specimen is also more complete and, unlike other finds, had an intact thorax.

“For the first time, we’re seeing proportions that would resemble those of a duck or a cormorant,” says Holtz. “It had a torpedo, a sausage-shaped body that we see in diving birds today.”

(Credit: Yusik Choi/Commun Biol ISSN 2399-3642 (online))

Sometimes paleontologists will see a specimen from a commercial collector and recognize it as something new. But it’s not the gold standard for detection, because when money is exchanged, there’s always a chance of fraud.

“There was always a bit of skepticism that the first specimen was a fake that had been altered from the original bones to look like something else,” says Holtz.

But perhaps more importantly, it was discovered by the scientist who described it in the study, rather than being purchased by a commercial fossil dealer.

N. polydontus had the characteristics of the other Halscarptoria while adding to our knowledge. These were the first birds of prey that lived more like a duck than a leopard, Holtz says. “This further shows the diversity that existed in this ancient group of animals.”

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