In 1995, a palaeontologist called Mark Norrell reported an amazing discovery – the fossilised remains of a dinosaur called Troodon, sitting on top of a large clutch of eggs. The fossil was so well-preserved and its posture so unmistakeable that it provided strong proof that some dinosaurs incubated their eggs just as modern birds do. And since then, two other small predatory species – Oviraptor and Citipati – have been found in brooding positions on top of egg clutches.
But a subtler look at these fossils reveal much more about dinosaur parenting than the simple fact that it existed. To David Varricchio from Montana State University, they also tell us which parent took more responsibility for the young. Based on the size of the egg clutches and the bones of the parent, Varricchio thinks that it was the males that cared for the babies. And given that small, predatory dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds, fatherly care was probably also the norm for the earliest members of our feathered friends.
Of all the back-boned animal groups, none show a greater equality of parental care that the birds. Among mammals, the next generation is mainly the mother’s responsibility and fathers help out in less than 5% of species. By comparison, male birds help to care for eggs and chicks in over 90% of living species. But Varricchio (together with Norrell and others) argues that this joint parenting is not how the dynasty started off.
The team noted that the clutches so delicately incubated by Troodon, Oviraptor and Citipati contained a substantial number of eggs, about 22 to 30 eggs apiece. Compared to most of the 433 living birds and crocodilians whose clutch sizes have been studied, the dinosaurs were sitting on far more eggs than animals of their size normally do. The team found that species where both parents chip in, or where mum takes the lead, usually settle for smaller clutches. Only those where dad does almost all of the work tend to rear such large broods.