The Persistent Melancholy of Oviraptor

Or, what is Oviraptor?

Originally described in 1924 by H. F. Osborn on the partial remains of a skeleton including the skull, neck, should, and forelimb, associated with some eggs inferred to belong to a ceratopsian the animal was predating, Oviraptor philoceratops languished in the margins of paleontological mythologica for nearly 60 years.

Skeletal reconstruction of AMNH FR 6514, holotype of Oviraptor philoceratops Osborn (1924). Shown are all preserved material.

Such fossil animals are not rare, when the original and only specimens are incomplete, damaged, or in the case of some more famous animals, destroyed or lost.

But for the purposes of this post, we’ll concern ourselves with a peculiar element of mythologica that has sprung up around Oviraptor. This is due in large part to the absence of any research into a group that we now call “Oviraptoridae” for those selfsame nearly 60 years, until expeditions into the Mongolian Gobi discovered new localities, specimens, and mysteries.

The Mythologica Oviraptorum

Chief among the first wave of discoveries was that of GIN (or MPC-D) 100/42, the most complete oviraptorid skeleton yet known, which has since become immortalized among casual purveyors, consumer media, and even some paleontological circles, as “Oviraptor.” This was both partially Barsbold Rinchen’s fault (he described the specimen initially as a member of that taxon), and the fault of the horribly generic manner in which media and commercial artists latch on to any bit of nomenclature and, by its repetition, it overtakes any concerns or equivocation from the source material.

[“Citipati osmolskae” (unnamed oviraptorid GIN 100/42) in the exhibition “Dinosaures. Tresors del desert de Gobi” (“Dinosaurs. Treasures of Gobi Desert”) in CosmoCaixa, Barcelona.] Caption via Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-BA 3.0

This meant not only that any toothless, beaked, small-headed “predatory” dinosaur from Mongolia was first Oviraptor before it was anything else, but also that the very conceptual behavior of the animal, formulated by Osborn in 1924 and ensconced into its very name, would maintain thereafter.

We now do not think so much of Oviraptor — or any oviraptorid — as a loving brood mother, but as a predator of eggs first, despite the work of the 90s, 00s, and continuing to today demonstrating the reverse. A large swatch of media did adjust to the new discoveries, but it was to transition the visual appearance of Oviraptor. Despite this, an image, and idea, of Oviraptor has persisted, one which can be said to be likely untrue at worst or provably false altogether. It is this I would describe as a paleontological mythologica, a sort of conflation of media, outdated scientific, and lay opinions about a thing that nevertheless hold sway.

The visual appearance of Oviraptor can be said to move through three phases, as has happened with many transitions of dinosaurs through the 20th century to today.

The first phase, the “Classical Period,” gives us the longest stretch of time in which these dinosaurs, and indeed, in the range of media about them, have been produced, with dignitaries and powerhouses of the likes of Knight, Zallinger, and Burian, culminating with the “Dinosaur Renaissance,” which began the second phase. That revision brought cleaner and anatomically-driven models for the appearance of many animals, and the beginning of a certain healthy dose of speculation, powered by the likes of Bakker and Paul. The “Modern Period,” ended as a wellspring of scientific discoveries included many transformations of the visual imagination of dinosaurs due to deeper, enriched studies, such that the visuals were altered not by artists but scientists like Horner, Xu, and many others.

We may be transitioning into a fourth phase, as the increase in social media digestion of art broadens the range of artists and scientists communication, and importantly the role of speculation and zoological study of behavior has in conveying the ideas and known concepts of deeper biological processes. I am loath to illustrate this as my imagination and artistic skill aren’t quite competent.

Oviraptor itself was transformed by this process and may continue to change. What we know of it is, still, limited to a single skeletal specimen (see at top). Missing the upper half of the skull (below), it looked to all intents to Osborn like a nose-spiked, egg-eating monster with a short neck. Discovery of GIN 100/42 provoke a change, but the image persisted until Paul’s illustrations of Oviraptor (assuming the two sets of skeletons belonged to the same species, which Barsbold argued earlier) enchanted other work.

Skull of AMNH FR6514, holotype of Oviraptor philoceratops Osborn (1924)

Indeed, this image was so persistent that, merely 2 decades ago, Disney’s Dinosaur included the short-necked, 100/42-crested Oviraptor in its introduction (in its role as villain, plunderer, destroyer of nests). Toy modelers seem to waffle between the Paul model and the Osborn one; they’ve not quite made up their mind to show how diverse and different all of these animals could be. Today, GIN 100/42, the “image” of Oviraptor that is used now, lies somewhere adjacent to the more recently named, similarly long-necked and small-headed Citipati osmolskae.

Simplified tree of crested caenagnathoids (omitting Rinchenia, Oksoko, Nemegtomaia, Huanansaurus, and Corythoraptor). Missing material of the skull is shown darker. Anzu wyliei skull redrawn after Scott Hartman’s skeletal illustration barring my own rendition.

Oviraptor lies somewhere between the hatchet-shaped crest 100/42 and the tall, rounded crest of Anzu wyliei. Rinchenia mongoliensis (not shown), itself once a species of Oviraptor, is remarkable in preserving an Anzu-like crest — or rather, Anzu preserves a Rinchenia-like crest.

The dorsal skull roof of Oviraptor is poorly preserved, but shows the growth of a thin, midline ridge or crest unlike other non-Rinchenia oviraptorids. Without further cranial material of caenagnathids like Anzu, we cannot objectively argue that the ancestor of both groups bore a tall crest, but it is likely.

Thus, the ancestral caenagnathoid (or its ancestor, rather) was probably a Anzu-like animal of small stature with a typical theropody jaw that diverged into the shallow-jawed caegnathids and the deep-jawed oviraptorids. The presence of a transitional form in Oviraptor strongly indicates its basal position within oviraptorids in this scheme, even should it be a basal side branch amongst the more diverse array of known oviraptorids (crested “citipatiines” versus crestless “heyuanniines”).

(As an aside, I prefer “citipatiine” as opposed to “oviraptorine” to refer to grouping taxa by their latest, more derived members, owning to the possibility should its most basal forms fall out. Oviraptor takes “Oviraptorinae” with it. I am loath to use “Heyuanniinae” as the proper nomenclature for the subgroup containing former “Ingeniayanshini should, and always will be, “Ajancingeniinae,” until such a time as the nomenclature is cleaned up; adherence to the ICZN suggests the replacement name is a requirement and all more inclusive taxa up to the Family level based upon it follow it even through synonymy, such that referring yanshini to Heyuannia doesn’t cure the error.)

Despite this, the mythology of Oviraptor keeps it tied to its history as the vessel of many oviraptorids since removed, as with many classical, and broader, former “wastebasket” taxa. The tendency of singularity of morphological diversity being ensconced into nomenclature by referral to its oldest member has the added negative effect of carrying the most common visual marker for that group to all of its members. We remember Oviraptor … but we see 100/42.

GIN 100/42 (or MPC-D 100/42), aka, the Dzhamin-Khondt oviraptorid, a derived “citipatiine” oviraptorid related to Citipati osmolskae. Likely represents a new species (and “genus”) distinct from other oviraptorids. Amongst the best known taxa.

A meme ceases to have value when it fails to be iterated upon. It is merely copied, and the idea it encapsulates ceases to drift, to change. It is static. It passes from meme into established mythology. When Oviraptor was merely a short-necked, naked, maybe feather-armed egg snatcher with a hatchet crest, we failed to elaborate further from what was then known, to grow the idea beyond that point. Paul’s version was probably the last innovative look established media has possessed of Oviraptor, which is a shame because Oviraptor didn’t look anything like what Paul illustrated.

Many years ago David Smith introduced the idea that Oviraptor was perhaps a little more unique, and when we learned generally of the “saucer-plate crested” oviraptorids, and eventually Anzu, it becomes clear generally how Oviraptor should look. Since that time, we’ve seen additional oviraptorids with crests in different shapes, from the saucers of Oksoko avarsan and Rinchenia mongoliensis; to the mitres of Corythoraptor jacobsi and another undescribed oviraptorid I’ve mentioned years ago on this blog; to the triangles or hatchets of 100/42, Nemegtomaia barsboldi, and Citipati osmolskae. To add to this the peculiar parietal “hump” of Tontgianlong limosus, we gain a look at what Oviraptor philoceratops might sport.

I ‘ve illustrated here the view I’ve had of Oviraptor since the late 90s, although this predated discovery of Tontgianlong, which may fit better. Nevertheless, this might be a way to undredge the memetic transformation of Oviraptor and render the mythology to just that: a myth.

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11 Responses to The Persistent Melancholy of Oviraptor

  1. palpatine505 says:

    I am really thankful for this essay; please, Sir, do keep these coming.

  2. David H says:

    I wish people would stop using the word “myth” for something untrue. Myths are always true. That is, no matter how much they may be inaccurate factually or in concrete meaning, they are always based on cores of truth. “Myth” is used almost exclusively as a synonym for a falsity. Better to use the words “falsity, untruth, misconception, falsehood or lie” instead. I know this is a futile gesture on my part because language evolves but it is why I refuse to use “myth” to mean a lie. Having said my two cents worth, if that much, I appreciate all the fascinating and enlightening information and opinion of the author.

    • In this case, the “mythology” is referring to a story, not necessarily one that is not true, but which lives outside of any factual characterization or reflexive authentication for its assertions. It lives apart from the nature of the thing it describes.

      • palpatine505 says:

        Myths are never true; they are always falsehoods; hence the term “myth” literally means a lie.
        Here the story isn’t supported by the biological evidence, so it goes away, no matter how popular it may be.

    • palpatine505 says:

      Myths are never true; that’s why they became equated with lies… in fact, the term “myth” literally means a lie.

  3. Honestly I don’t get why parental care obliterates the possibility that it might have consumed eggs on at least occasion. The palatal ridges are indeed an odd adaptation that don’t seem suited for much else than piercing eggshells.

    • palpatine505 says:

      Actually, with the jaw structure, it stands to reason (but would require proof by experimentation of course), that the animal in question would function more proficiently at eating solid food than a primarily liquid diet of the contents of eggs; and that’s due solely to the case that this animal in question’s jaws were structured the way they were.

      • Not necessarily; like molluscivores the jaws needed only to be suited to crack open hard things to get at the soft food inside. And contemporary dinosaur eggs could get pretty large and were oval, requiring durophagous speciations.

        That said, I would very much like rigorous testing.

        • palpatine505 says:

          That’s a good argument; but if it ate animals like clams and the like; it’d have to be operating on beaches, not in the desert, which’s where it appears to have operated, in a landlocked area of mostly desert.

    • While the palatal prongs seem evidence for egg-eating, it’s somewhat of an extended premise. It’s true that they would be useful, but they are more than sufficient. I would doubt oviraptorids wouldn’t just bite open eggs using their beak tips, and toothed egg eating reptiles do. Animals that involved intraoral crushing instead, like it seems oviraptorids may have, seem to have the capacity to eat harder foodstuffs, shelled animals rather than merely just eggs. Thus, focusing on eggs would have been a bit puzzling. Barsbold actually talked about this back in 1988 and it’s been somewhat swept under the rug since Smith revisited the comments in 1996. Literally no other biomechanical work has been done. That said, Zanno and others have commented how oviraptorids show evidence for being herbivorous, and it seems odd to develop such a small head to eat eggs or clams or whatever when all other such consumers have larger heads (but smaller boddies, comparatively) relative to their foodstuffs.

      There honestly is little reason to focus on egg-eating exclusively. If they were durophages, they might eat eggs opportunistically, as indeed generalist carnivores often do. Now, whether it’s something generalist herbivores or omnivores do…

      • palpatine505 says:

        Not a bad breakdown, and, likely as not, they’d be useful to fasten the jaws to meat to pull off of a carcass as opposed to eating something that’s contents are mostly liquid, which you really do kind of need something to enable sucking to consume a liquid diet, such as lips ironically. Most egg-eating reptiles actually swallow the eggs in the process of eating them, and then spit up the shells.
        Eating shelled animals does make sense for such an animal, such as shattering the shells of crabs and seafood and the like- problem is that you’d have to be a coastal animal to dine on a seafood diet, and it seems as though Oviraptor lived in a primarily desert environment for the most part, with some lakes around and the like… that’s a serious problem.
        Animals adapt to their environment in a physical sense, these animals appear to have lived in a primarily desert environment, as opposed to a coast of a large ocean. Granted, the geography has changed, but Mongolia is a landlocked area. As someone who’s spent time in the middle of a continental land-mass, I can assure you that temperatures vary radically; so you’ve got to be able to handle wild temperature shifts to survive in such an environment.
        What about the idea that they may have eaten fruit as well as things like random meats to round out their diet?

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