Scientists have discovered a freakish, birdlike species of dinosaur — 11 feet long, 500 pounds, with a beak, no teeth, a bony crest atop its head, murderous claws, prize-fighter arms, spindly legs, a thin tail and feathers sprouting all over the place. Officially, it's a member of a group of dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs. Unofficially, it's the Chicken from Hell.
"It would look like a really absurd, stretched-out chicken," said paleontologist Emma Schachner of the University of Utah, one of the scientists describing the new species in the journal PLOS One.
"It would have been a cross between a chicken and a lizard," said Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who excavated some of the fossils in North Dakota.
This dino-bird is not literally a chicken, or even a bird. It's definitely a dinosaur, and it lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, from about 68 million to 66 million years ago.
It's an unsettling beast, the biggest oviraptorosaur species found in North America. The creature brings to mind a huge flightless bird, such as an ostrich or emu. The weird crest on its head looks like that of a cassowary. The new dinosaur is loaded with biological accessories and adaptations, as if evolution had been inspired by a Swiss Army knife.
In the final line of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously wrote of the "grandeur" of natural selection, through which "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" — but he never saw this animal from a Colonel Sanders nightmare.
The scientific name of the new species is Anzu wyliei — "Anzu" is from a mythological creature; the "wyliei" is after the grandson of a patron of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, which acquired the fossils. Carnegie Museum paleontologist Matthew Lamanna and his colleagues spent close to a decade figuring out how the disarticulated bones of the three specimens fit together.
Anzu reminds everyone of the birdiness of dinosaurs, and the dinosaur-ness of birds. Paleontologists can become dyspeptic when they hear that dinosaurs are extinct. Not so: Birds are dinosaurs.
Some of the birdiness of Anzu reflects "convergent" evolution, Lamanna said. Its ancestors had teeth, but it has none, meaning that the beak — a very birdy feature — evolved as an adaptation independently of the beak in the evolutionary line of true birds. That's true also of the birdy crest on the head.
"When people think of a dinosaur, they think of something like a T. rex or a brontosaurus, and when they think of a bird, they think of something like a sparrow or a chicken,'' Lamanna said. "This animal, Anzu, has a mosaic of features of both of those groups, and so it basically provides a really nice link in the evolutionary chain."
Did it . . . cluck?
"We have no evidence that it clucked or crowed," Lamanna said.
What would it have tasted like?
"I can't answer that question with any degree of certainty," he said, but he suggested that it might have tasted a bit like alligator or ostrich.
Alligator famously tastes a little bit like chicken. But ostrich — an animal that is scientifically a dinosaur and is our closest analogue to the Chicken From Hell — tastes like beef.