Science

Chicken from Hell, birdlike dinosaur discovered

Standing 1.5m at the hip, weighing as much as a large African lion, and wielding sharp claws and a slicing beak, the newly discovered Anzu wyliei sounds like one of the things you’d least want to meet on a night out.

Named after a feathered demon from ancient Mesopotamian mythology, A. wyliei has been given the affectionate nickname of the ‘Chicken from Hell’ by the researchers involved in its discovery.

However, all is not as it seems. As much as the media would like to portray all dinosaurs as vicious, flesh-devouring killing machines, the truth is that they were a spectacular group of animals that thrived on every continent and diversified to fill nearly every niche available to them. Indeed, their lineage still survives today with the birds – think about that the next time you have a roast chicken!

What makes A. wyliei so interesting is that it sheds more light upon a little known group; the Caenagnathidae. With feathers, long legs and beaks specialised for varied diets, these dinosaurs looked more birdlike than the majority of their contemporaries. It is believed that they may even represent an offshoot of the basal avians, or a sister taxon thereof.

All known fossils of A. wyliei have been discovered encased in mudstone, suggesting that it was likely that their preferred habitats were the vast areas of floodplain present in North America during the late cretaceous era.

Furthermore, one specimen had a collection of mollusc shells and the bones of small vertebrates present within its chest cavity. Whilst this implies that A. wyliei had a diet that was at least in part carnivorous, it is possible that the remains became lodged there due to fluvial processes, possibly during the same floods that may have killed the animal.

Due to its suspected habitat and general morphology, one possible suggestion is that A.wyliei may have had a lifestyle similar to a wading animal, subsisting mainly on vegetation, but consuming small animals when the opportunity presented itself. Further adding to the confusion is a strange, sliding jaw joint, unlike that of any other animal, which could produce a cutting motion equally useful for both diets.

Another interesting feature of Anzu wyliei is the bony crest atop its skull. Many dinosaurs had similar structures, but this is the biggest known crest among the Caenagnathidae, and is believed to have performed an important function in life. This could have included communication, by amplifying low frequency sounds in a manner similar to the hypothesised function of a cassowary’s casque.

While it is unlikely we’ll ever know how A. wyliei truly lived, occupying a niche as an ecological generalist seems to be the most likely so far. Although the hellish part is debatable, Anzu wyliei seems to have certainly lived up to the rest of its namesake.

Chris Ball

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