Dr. David Evans, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, poses with a nest of dinosaur eggs he discovered.
Sticks and stones can break your bones, and uncover an incredible fossil find.
Just ask Dr. David Evans, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. The exhibit he currently oversees, “Dinosaur Eggs & Babies: Remarkable Fossils from South Africa,” running until July 4 at the ROM, showcases the oldest fossilized dinosaur eggs and embryos ever uncovered, and offers new insight into how these ancient creatures reproduced and grew.
You might remember Evans as the whiz who discovered Gordo, the ninety-foot Barosaurus skeleton that languished in the museum’s basement for decades, and is now the largest dinosaur on permanent display in Canada. Well, he seems to have done it again. The good doctor describes the dinosaur egg discovery as the happiest kind of accident.
Rewind back to 2005, when Evans, on an unyielding dig at the Rooidraai site in South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park, momentarily lost steam on the third day of the dig and took a minute to sit down against a cliff wall and skip stones out of frustration. Evans recalls, “I picked a rock out of a cliff. I’m really lucky that I looked at what was in my hand before I threw it, because I pulled out what was almost an entire egg out of the cliff wall. My jaw dropped, and we slowly turned around to the look at the cliff wall we were sitting against, and there was a row of eggs.”
After five years of careful cleanup (Evans notes that the sand was literally removed from the specimen grain by grain), the artifacts have now gone on display. The nest of eggs, belonging to the plant-eating species Massospondylus—ancestor to the giant sauropod Brachiosaurus (the one that sneezed on that kid in Jurassic Park)—is considered to be among the oldest of its kind ever found. Right beside it, you’ll find a clutch of unhatched dinosaur skeletons belonging to the same species. Discovered at the same site in 1976 by paleontologist James Kitching, the technology and techniques to properly assess what exactly the specimen was didn’t exist at the time. The species was finally identified in 2004—an event that saw coverage in the New York Times, USA Today, and the journal Science. (Unfortunately, since the articles are older, they aren’t readily available for free online any longer.)
A 190-million-year-old clutch of dinosaur eggs and embryos.
“[The clutch of eggs] goes back, like most stories in paleontology, a number of decades. People worked certain sites over the years and they found things, but haven’t been able to really interpret them until we’ve built up a bigger context, and this is a perfect example of that,” says Evans. “It’s incredible. Most dinosaur eggs are about 70 million years old. This one is 190 million years old. They’re the oldest dinosaur eggs with embryos in them that have ever been found. They date just a few tens of millions of years just after dinosaurs originated, so what we have is a record of dinosaur reproduction, basically at the beginning of the age of dinosaurs. It allows us to make some generalizations as to what the ancestral conditions were, what all dinosaurs might have shared.”
The finds provide one more piece of the puzzle as to how this particular species of dinosaur grew from infant to adult, but it’s still only the tip of the iceberg in comparison to what these artifacts could teach us, says Evans, adding that he, along with other paleontologists, are hard at work getting the facts.
“These little embryos are just one bookend in a more complete growth series for this dinosaur,” he said. “For the first time, we have embryos and eggs for a dinosaur where we actually have juveniles, sub-adults, and large adults. And we can study that growth series from the time they’ve been conceived in an egg to its full adult size. It’s very exciting, and it’s just the beginning, really.”