Dinosaur resembling cross between a chicken and lizard once roamed North America

Illustration showing Anzu wyliei is courtesy of Mark Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History

It’s sometimes fun, and perhaps a bit scary, to imagine what type of creatures once roamed the territory you inhabit.

For folks in Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, one of those creatures was Anzu wyliei, the scientific name given to a newly discovered dinosaur that resembles a cross between a chicken and a lizard.

The feathered animal, named after a mythical winged beast, lived 66 million years ago. It stood 5 feet tall, weighed about 500 pounds, and measured to 11 feet from its beak to the tip of its tail. It boasted razor-sharp claws and a sharp, but toothless, beak. Because Anzu lacked teeth, it was most likely an omnivore that fed on animals and plants.

Oviraptosaurian Cast and Skull
Smithsonian scientists Hans-Dieter Sues (right) and Tyler Lyson (left) display reconstructed Anzu wyliei skull; photo by Brittany Hance/Smithsonian Institution

Its discovery was featured Wednesday by Smithsonian Magazine, which cites recently published research by scientists working for Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the University of Utah.

The species is part of a group of dinosaurs known as Oviraptorosauria, their history having been pieced together over the years based on mere fragments of fossilized bone found in Asia and North America.

However, thanks to the fairly recent discovery of three partial skeletons in South Dakota and North Dakota, researchers were able to reconstruct a nearly complete skeleton.

Oviraptosaurian Cast and Skull
Skull of Anzu wyliei reveals the dinosaur’s large, toothless beak; photo by Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution

“With the discovery of A. wyliei, we finally have the fossil evidence to show what this species looked like, and how it is related to other dinosaurs,” Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian magazine.

Two of the skeletons were unearthed 50 feet from one another by private collectors in what is known as the Hell Creek Formation, a Cretaceous-era rock deposit in South Dakota. (For this reason, Anzu has been given the nickname “chicken from hell.”)

The third was found by Tyler Lawson, now a post-doctorate student at the National History Museum. He first sighted bones as a teenager while exploring his uncle’s North Dakota ranch.

The researchers, after comparing notes and examining fossilized bones, recently concluded that all three partial skeletons belong to the same species.

During the eight-year reconstruction project, scientists discovered that two of the specimens had suffered injuries that included a broken rib and arthritic toe. 

The research is significant because while paleontologists have for years suspected that dinosaurs like Anzu wyliei once roamed North America, because bone fragments resembled those of Oviraptorosauria fossils found in Asia, they now possess clear knowledge of the dinosaurs’ existence.

“We knew there was a group of Oviraptorosaurs in North America, but we didn’t know many fundamental things about them,” said Matthew Lamanna, the paper’s lead author and assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “What they looked like, how exactly they were related to their Asian cousins, how they lived, how big they got, all those things. Anzu helps to answer all of those questions.”

The scientists hope that another recently discovered skeleton, most likely from the same species, will provide even more insight into the bizarre-looking dinosaurs.

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