In prehistoric North Dakota, a marshy land roamed by turtles and crocodiles, there lived a dinosaur that experts think looked sort of like a giant chicken.
When the species' bones arrived at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History a decade ago, employees looked at the 11-foot-long animal -- with its beak, long neck, crested head and slanted posture -- and nicknamed it the "chicken from hell."
"He probably did look like a giant, really freaky chicken," said Matt Lamanna, assistant curator of the Carnegie Museum, who spent nine years studying the animal and can't help but think of it when he now eats chicken wings.
Bird-like dinosaur unveiled at Museum of Natural History
Scientists from Carnegie and Smithsonian museums and the University of Utah today unveiled a dinosaur discovery -- a sharp-clawed, 500-pound, bird-like creature that roamed the Dakotas 66 million years ago. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/19/2014)
On Wednesday, Mr. Lamanna and three other paleontologists published a paper giving the infernal chicken a place in the dinosaur family tree. Now it has a more dignified name: Anzu wyliei.
Anzu, who weighed about 500 pounds, lived 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous era, shortly before dinosaurs went extinct. The species was probably an omnivore, Mr. Lamanna said, using its claws to pick leaves and its toothless beak to eat them. It might have also dined on fruit, eggs and tiny creatures such as insects and lizards.
When it wasn't chowing down, Anzu was probably busy running away from its contemporary, Tyrannosaurus rex, through the Dakotas' coastal floodplains.
The discovery of Anzu sheds light on the last years of the dinosaurs, said Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who co-authored the paper. Some scientists think the number of dinosaur species was in decline before their extinction, but the addition of Anzu to the list of Cretaceous species bolsters the theory that many were still around.
"The fact that we're still finding new species in the late Cretaceous indicates that dinosaur diversity was doing very well when the meteorite struck," Mr. Lyson said, referring to a leading theory -- a giant meteorite hitting the Yucatan Peninsula -- that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.
Anzu also is important as a rare example of the oviraptorosaur genus, closely related to the ancestors of birds. Oviraptor bones are hard to find because they were so brittle; like bird bones, they were full of tiny air ducts.
There are three sets of Anzu fossils, two of them stored in wooden trays in a room in the Carnegie Museum's basement that employees call "the big bone room."
One of the sets was found by Mr. Lyson. In 1999, he spotted a bone sticking out of the ground in the Hell Creek formation in North Dakota, a place with abundant dinosaur fossils. After cleaning up the set of six bones, he and his team knew right away that they'd found a new species. They were intrigued by its appearance, especially the crest on its skull, which was probably used for mating displays.
"That was very striking to all of us, to see that giant crest," Mr. Lyson said. "It's a very charismatic-looking animal."
At a 2006 paleontology conference, Mr. Lamanna saw a poster of Mr. Lyson's fossils and realized they were from the same species as the "chicken from hell." They teamed up with two other researchers to document the species.
Putting the dinosaur together was hard work. The fragile bones had to be carefully prepared with tiny sand-blasters and dental tools. Then came the agony of fitting the bones together. Because of the rarity of oviraptor fossils, they didn't have good examples to work from.
"Unfortunately for us, Anzu didn't come with an instruction manual, so there was a big learning curve," Mr. Lamanna said.
When it was time to name it, the team stayed loyal to the "chicken from hell" moniker. Their first idea was to look for Latin or Greek translations, but they decided those terms would be too difficult to pronounce. They considered "Phobogallus," Greek for "fear chicken." Nope.
Then, Mr. Lamanna came up with the idea of naming it after a bird demon from ancient mythology. He stumbled on the Mesopotamian god Anzu, a lion-headed bird that caused whirlwinds by flapping its wings. The second half of the name, Wyliei, is in honor of Wylie Tuttle, the grandson of Lee Foster, chairman of the museum's board of trustees.
Over the seven years they worked together and the thousands of emails they exchanged, the team -- Mr. Lamanna, Mr. Lyson, Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian Institution and Emma Schachner of the University of Utah -- became close friends. They relaxed after work by going out for beers, teaching each other boxing moves at the gym and watching "South Park" episodes.
"That's been one of the greatest things about this project," Mr. Lamanna said. "Emma, Hans, Tyler and I are all good buddies. If we weren't working on the project, we would still hang out."
Mr. Lamanna, who grew up in upstate New York and lives in Seven Fields with his wife, joined the Carnegie Museum in 2004. Before Anzu, his claim to fame was helping discover Paralititan, one of the largest dinosaurs known, during a trip to Egypt. He was also part of a group that uncovered several birdlike dinosaurs in China.
Now he's concentrating on dinosaur species from the southern hemisphere. When the giant continent of Pangaea split in half about 160 million years ago, southern dinosaurs followed different evolutionary paths from their northern cousins. They haven't received as much attention because their former habitats are far from most researchers, Mr. Lamanna said. He's traveled to Antarctica, Australia and Argentina in search of new species.
"That's what's so interesting to me -- revealing these dinosaurian lost worlds," he said.
Richard Webner: email@example.com or 412-263-4903. First Published March 19, 2014 5:09 PM