Portuguese scientists say they have discovered the world's oldest dinosaur embryo. Found in 140-million-year-old sediments, the Jurassic period fossil is the first dino embryo to be found in Europe, and it appears to be twice as old as any yet discovered.
The find was announced in Portugal over the weekend by Philippe Taquet, director of the paleontology laboratory of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Taquet led the study of the egg containing the embryo, which was unearthed in Lourinha, a small seaside town 60 kilometers north of Lisbon known for decades for its wealth of Jurassic fossils. "Jurassic Park is now in Lourinha," he says.
Taquet says the egg cache that yielded the fossil was discovered 3 years ago by a couple of amateur paleontologists, Oratio and Isabel Mateus, who have a small dinosaur museum in Lourinha. Excavation the following year revealed more eggs, some of them nearly complete, along with many tiny bones. Last year, Taquet visited the site and confirmed that one of the crushed eggs, which was about 18 centimeters long, contained an embryo. He identified a variety of bones from it, including a 1-millimeter-long vertebra. Taquet says he suspects it is a theropod, a three-toed, meat-eating dino, as theropod remains have been found in the vicinity. A report of the find has been accepted for publication in the French journal Contes Rendus de l'Académie de Science.
Paleontologists are excited about the embryo find. "If it is in fact a dinosaur embryo, that's fantastic. We'd all be very happy," says Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. A few dozen known dinosaur embryos, representing five different species, have been found to date, in China, Mongolia, Canada, and Montana. Virtually all are from the Cretaceous period, roughly 70 million years ago. (Jurassic eggs have been found in Colorado, but they contained no embryos.)
Taquet says he hopes to find more embryos in the material he has collected for analysis, which includes about 100 eggs. In the meantime, paleontologists are eager to learn more about this first specimen. "If the embryo is identifiable," says paleontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, "that is really significant, because it allows us to tie specific dinos to specific types of eggs."