A newly discovered dinosaur is so strange that scientists initially thought the fossil was fake after it was found in a dealer’s shop in France.
The turkey-sized cousin of Velociraptor has paddle-like front limbs and other features that suggest it spent a large part of its time in the water — making it unique among its known relatives.
“It’s a real enigma,” said Philip Currie, a University of Alberta paleontologist who was part of the international team that described the new species in a study published Wednesday in Nature.
The fossil appears to have been stolen by poachers from the Ukhaa Tolgod fossil bed in Mongolia sometime in the last 15 years, said Currie, who has spent decades studying the fossils of carnivorous dinosaurs from Mongolia.
It was illegally exported and probably spent time in private fossil collections around the world before it was found in a dealer’s shop in France by another fossil dealer named François Escuillié.
Currie describes Escuillié as a responsible fossil dealer who always keeps his eyes open for specimens that he knows will be of interest to science. He had previously found the missing skull and feet of a dinosaur called Deinocheirus mirificus, allowing paleontologists to finally solve a decades-old mystery of what the dinosaur looked like and where it fit in the dinosaur family tree.
Then in 2015, Escuillié spotted another unusual and interesting fossil and reported it to Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science in Brussels. It’s the only European institution authorized by the Mongolian government to legally acquire Mongolian fossils exported to Europe.
Godefroit invited Andrea Cau, then a PhD student at the University of Bologna, to collaborate on a study of the fossil. When Cau, lead author of the study, first saw it, he was “shocked and excited at the same time,” he recalled in an email to CBC News. “It was such a beautiful and unexpected fossil, completely different from all known…