Did dinosaurs flirt? It seems incredible to imagine, but the answer seems to be yes, at least in the case of the oviraptor, a small theropod dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous Period (about 75 million years ago). New research reveals that oviraptors may have waved their flexible tail feathers to attract potential mates, in a way that resembles the habits of a modern-day peacock.
In 1924, paleontologists in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert discovered the first oviraptor specimen near a clutch of eggs, which were thought to belong to the horned dinosaur Protoceratops. Assuming the beast was stealing the eggs, they named the species oviraptor, from the Latin terms for “egg robber.” But in the 1990s, research revealed that they had given the oviraptor a bad rap: the eggs were probably its own, which it had been guarding. Later oviraptor skeletons were found brooding over nests of eggs, just as many birds position themselves over their nests today.
Now, scientist have uncovered another fascinating link between the oviraptor and today’s birds. At the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting on November 2, 2011 in Las Vegas, doctoral student Scott Persons of the University of Alberta presented new findings about the oviraptor’s tail and how it might have been used. The dense arrangement of the bones in the tail was unusual even among theropods (which are the group of dinosaurs most closely related to modern-day birds) and allowed it to move with greater flexibility.
Oviraptor tails were also extremely muscular, and, according to fossil impressions, had a fan of feathers at the end. In Persons’ view, oviraptors could very well have used their muscular, flexible tails to wave their feathers in order to impress potential mates, just as peacocks use their magnificent jewel-toned feathers in courtship displays today.