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Shuvuuia deserti  (Chiappe, et al. 1998)

Name Means: Desert Bird Length: 3 foot
Pronounced: shu-VOO-ee-a Weight: 5.5 pounds
When it lived: Late Cretaceous - 85-75 MYA    
Where found: Mongolia's Gobi Desert    
   Shuvuuia deserti may be the best known alvarezsaurid, because it is the only one to have fossils that include complete and well-preserved skulls.
   The Shuvuuia story begins in 1987 when a joint Soviet-Mongolian expedition found remains of a bipedal dinosaur similar to Velociraptor, which had also been found in the Gobi Desert.  This newly discovered dinosaur lived around the same as Velociraptor, but was much smaller - about the size of a turkey. Then, in 1992, an expedition team from the American Museum of Natural History and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences discovered more remains of the same animal, which included two skulls. Although Shuvuuia looked like a dinosaur, examination of the skulls showed that it had a pointed beak filled with tiny teeth. The most amazing thing is that it could raise its upper jaw, with respect to the braincase. This is a characteristic of modern birds.  The skulls show that it more closely related to modern birds than is the famous first bird, Archaeopteryx.
   But that's where the similarity stopped. Shuvuuia’s forelimbs were short and stubby like ostrich or emu. They were very strong, but certainly unsuitable for flight. If it had feathers, then they were not preserved. Unable to fly, this carnivore was about the size of a turkey. It's long legs indicated that it was fast runner. Known theropods had three claws, but Shuvuuia had but one. at the end of each arm was a single large, hooked claw, bearing a resemblance to a scythe. It's use has the subject of great debate.  The claws may have been used to catch prey or ward away small predators. It is most likely that Shuvuuia was an insectivore, and used its claws to tear open tree bark or termite mounds to find insects.
Found in Mongolia's Gobi desert, the strange Shuvuuia (an alvarezsaurid like Mononykus) has been the source of debate for a long time. Can alvarezsaurids be formally classified as "Aves"? Are they just dinobirds(redundant as it sounds)? Or are they, as Paul Sereno proposes in "New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. Ostrom Symposium", modified ornithomimids? Until recently alvarezsaurids were reconstructed with smaller heads. This reconstruction is based on the latest Paul Sereno's paper where he shows an incredibly detailed and complete head that actually is bigger than thought before. Mary Schweitzer has made an important study of the "dino fuzz" fossilised integument found with the specimen and arrived to the conclusion that the main chemical component is Beta-Keratin: Important demonstration that "dino fuzz" is in reality feathers. The forelimbs have been a double source of puzzlement: Extremely short and stout with just one big first claw and the atrophied remnants of the other two digits: They must have had a very specific function. Nick Longrich did a presentation at the last two Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings on Shuvuuia and the closely related Mononykus concluding that they could have been ant or termite feeders (as it is shown here). Termite mounds are known as far back as the Triassic, so it is a distinct possibility although we might never know for sure.

 

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