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16 March 2023 Interpretation of fossil embryos requires reasonable assessment of developmental age
D. Charles Deeming, Martin Kundrát
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Dinosaur embryos cause a lot of excitement in the scientific literature and are often widely reported because of the general public's interest in dinosaur biology. Well-preserved, articulated oviraptorosaur embryos in eggs are usually interpreted as representing a stage of development close to hatching because of their large size and good level of skeletal ossification. Based on this evidence, a recent report suggested that the position of the one embryo's head was reminiscent of an avian-like hatching position. Here we explore how the developmental stage of well-preserved oviraptorosaur embryos can be estimated, rather than assumed. This will help in our understanding of their developmental biology and its evolutionary consequences. Using quantitative methods and comparison with modern crocodilian embryos, we show that all articulated oviraptorosaur embryos are small relative to the egg and most likely at a stage of development equivalent to around 50%–60% of the developmental period, that is, not even close to hatching. This conclusion is supported by the fact that many elements of the crocodilian skeleton are well ossified many weeks before hatching and the position of oviraptorosaur embryos' heads was also comparable to a crocodilian embryo many days before hatching. Misunderstandings about the stage of the developmental biology of these well-preserved oviraptorosaur embryos hampers our understanding of the true nature of their reproductive biology. We urge a more conservative approach to their interpretation. This is important, because misunderstandings in the minds of the public about dinosaur biology are hard to counter once poorly evidenced ideas have been reported around the world.

D. Charles Deeming and Martin Kundrát "Interpretation of fossil embryos requires reasonable assessment of developmental age," Paleobiology 49(1), 68-76, (16 March 2023).
Accepted: 6 June 2022; Published: 16 March 2023
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