It's got a duck's bill. A swan's neck. And walks like a penguin.
And it's a dinosaur.
Sound a little weird? Don’t worry, paleontologists share your befuddlement.
A research project, published this week in the journal Nature, sheds light on the bizarre halszkaraptor — a dinosaur so unusual that scientists are hailing it as a new species.
"What is very special about it is that it looks very weird. It doesn’t look like any other dinosaur that we know so far," Vincent Fernandez, a paleontologist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and co-author of the study, told The Guardian.
About the size of a goose, the dinosaur boasted a long tail, a curved, elegant neck and a duck-like bill.
While that may seem all bird to you, the halszkaraptor is considered non-avian. It's also a close cousin to the Cretaceous Period’s famously ferocious velociraptor. Besides, there are a few decidedly dinosaur bits — like razor-sharp claws and crocodilian teeth.
But this dinosaur is more than the sum of its cobbled-together bird parts.
For one thing, researchers suggest that when it roamed the Earth around 75 million years ago, the creature was equally at home in the water as it was on land.
"Other dinosaurs, such as spinosaurs, have been suggested to be opportunistic fish-eaters, but this is the first time we have a dinosaur that’s also bird-like, with a long neck and aquatic lifestyle," study co-author Andrea Cau told Cosmos Magazine. "Using front limbs to maneuver in the water is new among [non-avian] dinosaurs."
Even the way paleontologists came by the fossilized remains is a little unconventional. Poachers first came across them, embedded in stone, in Mongolia’s Gobi desert — a now-barren wasteland that once hosted flowing water and teeming life.
Just the kind of place a fish-hunting duck-penguin-swan hybrid would feel at home.
From there, the fossil seems to have spent time on the cocktail circuit of yesteryear, a conversation piece in private collections until a fossil dealer named François Escuillié acquired it and sent it home to Mongolia.
That’s where scientists finally had a chance to fire up the synchrotron — a powerful scanner that uses a particle accelerator to whip up electrons at astonishing speeds — and delve deeply into the stone that still houses the creature’s remains.
They managed to create a detailed, high-resolution scan, virtually reconstructing the creature's skeleton.
But this dinosaur has a lot more to give. Researchers are still poring over mountains of data from the scan.
"I am quite sure that not all the secrets of this dinosaur have yet been revealed," Cau explained to Cosmos.