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18-Dec-2008

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Dinosaurs taught birds how to be good dads



Reconstruction of a Troodon attending his clutch. The large clutches found in dinosaurs such as Troodon and Oviraptors suggest that males protected and incubated the eggs from perhaps several females.

In most species of birds, the males help the females take care of their eggs and assist in raising their young. In some bird species, the males even act as the primary caregivers to their chicks, doing everything from sitting on the eggs to feeding the hatchlings.

But where did this instinct come from? What makes birds such great fathers?



Fossilized remains of a Troodon nest. This earthen construction surrounded the egg clutch, here hidden beneath the white plaster. The tops of the half-buried eggs were exposed within the nest and were presumably incubated by the attending male.

New scientific research suggests that this male-based care system actually developed millions of years ago, and was passed on to modern-day birds from their ancient relatives the dinosaurs.

David Varricchio and colleagues studied fossils of dinosaur eggs and nests, and found what seems to be another major connection between extinct dinosaurs and modern-day birds: male-based care systems, also known as "paternal" care systems.

By looking at the dinosaurs' nests and bone structures, these researchers were able to determine that three particular species of dinosaur Troodon, Oviraptor, and Citipati appeared to have practiced this paternal care system, just like many birds today.

This discovery of paternal care in dinosaurs tells researchers that this method of raising offspring has deep roots in the history of vertebrates. Varricchio and this team of researchers believe it probably became widespread before any dinosaur even learned how to fly.

The researchers also believe that more focused studies like this one, along with more discoveries of dinosaur fossils, could lead to even more exciting findings. For example, they say that with more data, it might also be possible to trace the evolutionary history of bird songs back to a specific dinosaur species!

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This research appears in the 19 December issue of Science.