Analysis Of Ancient Eggshells Reveals Body Temperature Of Dinosaurs

Analysis Of Ancient Eggshells Reveals Body Temperature Of Dinosaurs

When talking about body temperature regulation methods of animals both living and extinct, there is more than just “warm or cold-blooded”. Birds and placental mammals are the stereotypical warm-blooded animals, and reptiles are well-known cold-blooded creatures. But then there animals like echidnas and great white sharks that can modulate their average body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making them something between warm and cold-blooded. And now, a new study in Nature Communications by University of California researcher Rob Eagle and co-authors (including me!) indicates some speciess of dinosaur may have been too.

Scientists use the terms endothermy and ectothermy to refer to the primary methods of body temperature regulation in vertebrates. An endotherm is an organism that generates heat internally to maintain a constant body temperature while an ectotherm relies on external or environmental heat sources. To make matters more complicated, there are organisms that have an intermediate state called “mesothermy”—meaning these animals use internal heat to raise their temperature, but not as high as a typical endotherm.

A life reconstruction of an oviraptorid nest by Doyle Trankina and Gerald Grellet-Tinner. (Image via UCLA)
A life reconstruction of an oviraptorid nest by Doyle Trankina and Gerald Grellet-Tinner. (Image via UCLA)

Modern birds are standard endotherms, but what does this mean for extinct bird relatives like dinosaurs? Obtaining the body temperature of an extinct non-avian dinosaur known only from fossils may seem impossible, but with a new isotope technique, it isn’t at all. The hard shells of both dinosaur and bird eggs are made out of a mineral called calcium carbonate, which is comprised of the elements calcium, carbon, and oxygen.

When digested with acid, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from the eggshell mineral, and the mass of the CO2 produced is measured with a machine called a mass spectrometer. Specific isotopes of carbon and oxygen produce a certain mass of CO2, and the amount of CO2 with that mass can indicate the temperature of mineral formation. Paleontologists call this method “clumped isotope analysis”. As eggs are formed inside the body of a female dinosaur, the temperature of eggshell calcium carbonate formation should be indicative of the animal’s body temperature.

In this study, the eggshells of two types of dinosaurs were analyzed: oviraptorid theropod dinosaurs from Mongolia and titanosaurid sauropods from Argentina. A wide variety of eggshells from modern birds and reptiles were tested to make sure this method was accurately measuring the body temperatures of these animals.

The “paleothermometer” reading from the clumped isotopes indicates something really interesting—these dinosaurs don’t seem to simply be “warm” or “cold” blooded. While the titanosaurid sauropod had a body temperature similar to a large living endotherm at 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, the measured body temperature of the oviraptorid dinosaurs from Mongolia were considerably lower. The body temperature of a typical endotherm is at least 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit but the body temperature measured from the oviraptorid eggshell is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This is lower than most modern mammals and birds. Due to the fact these eggshells were carefully analyzed for alteration and were found to preserve original mineral crystals, this low body temperature is likely an accurate signal. This suggests that these dinosaurs may have not been as warm as typical modern endotherms, but also weren’t completely ectothermic.

Where I collected fossils in Mongolia's Gobi Desert (Photo by Shaena Montanari)
Where I collected fossils in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert (Photo by Shaena Montanari)

I was involved in this paper as I am a paleontologist interested in using geochemistry to examine fossils and traces from dinosaurs—like eggshells. The oviraptors eggshells in this study were samples that I analyzed for environmental signals for my dissertation research. I collected these eggshells during my time doing field work in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. When I was walking around the Gobi I noticed these pieces of eggshells were everywhere but they weren’t being used for anything—so why not analyze them for isotopes and learn more about the environment of this habitat 80 million years ago?

While my research focused on just carbon and oxygen isotope ratios, I saw these eggshells were also great targets for this clumped isotope body temperature research, so I was fortunate to collaborate with Rob Eagle and other colleagues. Clumped isotopes are a gateway to understanding shifts in modes of vertebrate metabolism in a way we never thought possible before. Now knowing that some dinosaurs had an “intermediate” state of body heat regulation adds a new layer of understanding to the dinosaur-bird evolutionary transition.

Originally posted on 


What We’ve Learned About Dinosaurs Since Jurassic Park Came Out

Days away from the theatrical release of Jurassic World, the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park series, paleontologists and dinosaur lovers alike are eagerly awaiting the return of the most beloved dinosaur franchise in film history. As a professional dinosaur lover, I’ve been having fun revisiting what the scientific community has learned from the fossil record since the first Jurassic Park to see what this new film appears to get right about dinosaurs and where it diverges from the consensus.

Scientists have known for decades that dinosaurs are related to birds and were most assuredly covered in feathers. Even though dinosaurs were being depicted in illustrations with feathery coatings as early as the late 1970s, it was not until the early 1990s that the mounting comparative anatomical evidence from fossil discoveries elevated the hypothesis of birds being avian dinosaurs to near universal acceptance in the paleontological community.

CHRIS PRATT stars as Owen in "Jurassic World". Steven Spielberg returns to executive produce the long-awaited next installment of his groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" series. Colin Trevorrow directs the epic action-adventure, and Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley join the team as producers. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment © 2015 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Actor Chris Pratt stars as Owen in “Jurassic World,” the next installment of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” series. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment.

Before this, dinosaurs were depicted in the media as being more similar to crocodiles—scaly, lumbering tail-draggers. Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in the late 1980s before most of these theories had gained mass media appeal, but the book and the movie helped to make it more commonplace to illustrate dinosaurs as faster, more gracile, feathered creatures. The days of B-side horror films with tail-dragging dinosaurs were officially over. As a “flock” of Gallimimus runs by Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, he watches their fast, graceful movement and behavior, leans over to the children and says to them, “Bet you’ll never look at birds the same way again.”

Old, out-dated illustration of T. rex with incorrect posture and wrong skull shape. Illustration by Charles Knight (Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Old, out-dated illustration of T. rex with incorrect posture and wrong skull shape. Illustration by Charles Knight (Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Legendary paleontologist Jack Horner was the official paleontological consultant (and partial character inspiration) for the original 1993 Spielberg film and can be thanked for the accurate depiction of dinosaurs as bird relatives. Despite having a paleontologist on board and the evidence showing that dinosaurs were in fact feathered, the dinosaurs in every Jurassic Park film are merely scaled. Artistic license is mainly responsible for this omission—at the time feathered dinosaurs just did not seem scary. Also then, paleontologists did not know the full scope and breadth of feathers on the evolutionary tree.

While it was clear back then that theropod dinosaurs, the ones most closely related to birds, were feathered, heaps of new fossil finds since the 1990s show that dinosaurs from all branches of the tree may have had some form of feathers. Although, interestingly, recent research suggests that the common ancestor of dinosaurs was not feathered and the ‘feathery’ coating seen in ornithischian dinosaurs arose independently from the feathers of theropods. It seems today all of the dinosaurs in the newest film remain scaly and featherless for both continuity and drama-sake.