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China's Gobi desert source of rare dinosaur find
Updated: 2009-03-17 11:21

BEIJING -- Left on their own by adults, the young dinosaurs sank into the mud beside a lake and died 90 million years ago in what would become the Gobi Desert.

The well-preserved fossils, excavated by a team of Chinese and American scientists, offer a rare bounty of clues about how this herd of ostrich-like sinornithomimus lived - and died.

In this undated photo released by Project Exploration, the skull of an ostrich, left, is compared with a skull of the 90-million-year-old "bird mimic" dinosaur sinornithomimus found in Inner Mongolia in China. [Agencies]

Two life-sized models of the sinornithomimus were put on public display for the first time Monday in Hohhot, capital of north China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

"This is a very exciting discovery, because 99.9 percent of the time, we find a group of skeletons that died at different periods due to unknown causes," said Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago professor on the excavation team. "The other 0.1 percent of the time, scientists consider themselves lucky to find small herds that have been well-preserved after floods or volcanic eruptions, similar to that of Pompeii."

Italy's famous city of Pompeii was buried - its way of life frozen in time-- in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Sereno, a paleontologist, helped lead the 2001 expedition that uncovered the fossilized remains of the 25 young sinornithomimus near Suhongtu, a tiny, remote village in the Gobi desert about 370 miles (600 kilometers) west of Hohhot.

In this photo released by Project Exploration, Chinese dinosaur hunter Zhao Xijin, left, and University of Chicago Prof. Paul Sereno, right, compare fossil bones at the site of a buried dinosaur herd in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia, China, May 2001. [Agencies]

The position of the dinosaur bones suggests they were looking for water on the edge of a lake, got stuck and died as the mud engulfed them, Sereno said in a telephone interview. Their hip bones were found at odd angles, indicating scavengers tugged at their carcasses. Crablike organisms were also found surrounding the skeletons, a clue that tells scientists they were covered in water shortly after death, which helped preserve them.

Tan Xinwei, a paleontologist from the Inner Mongolia Department of Land and Resources who also worked on the expedition, said the findings tell researchers that "the youngsters were left to fend for themselves while the adults were preoccupied" with hatching eggs or building nests.

The two-legged, feathered dinosaurs reached about 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall as adults and scavenged for small plants by jutting out their long necks in an ostrich-like fashion, Sereno said.

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