The newly identified dinosaur’s past is as shrouded in mystery as its swimming abilities. The research team knows only that it is about 75 million years old and came from Mongolia, but not when it was found. That’s because after it was unearthed it was sold on the black market. For years, perhaps decades, it was held in private collections in Japan and Britain before ending up in the hands of researchers.
This checkered past, combined with its bizarre characteristics — duckbill, swan neck as long as its body, sickle-shaped toe claw — left some paleontologists dubious about its authenticity. The team, which was led by Andrea Cau, a paleontologist from the Geological and Palaeontological Museum Giovanni Capellini in Italy, had to make sure it wasn’t just a heap of bones and plaster glued together. So they brought it to a synchrotron to blast with X-rays and peek inside.
“It looked like an alien or something, it’s like a mixture of things that could have been put together,” said Vincent Fernandez a paleontologist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and an author on the paper. After the team scanned the specimen, they had Dr. Fernandez, who was just joining the team, inspect the image on a computer screen. At first he did not know whether it was real or not.
“They said ‘convince me it’s a fake,’” Dr. Fernandez said. “I thought it would be very obvious. But I looked at it for hours and hours and I couldn’t find anything.”
It was real. The synchrotron also revealed a series of sharp teeth hidden in its mouth.
Thomas Richard Holtz, a paleontologist from the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study, said that at first he thought the fossil was a fake. The results from the synchrotron convinced him that wasn’t the case.
“We’re used to thinking of raptors in the form of velociraptors, looking like knife-footed murder birds,” he said. “Now we know it also produced the non-bird dinosaur equivalent to a goose.”
He said that the dinosaur’s characteristics support the idea that it swam, and suggest that it most likely waded in the water until it got too deep and then it used its forelimbs to push itself forward. But he added that further investigation was needed to reveal this strange dinoduck’s swim stroke of choice.