Gregory M. Erickson, Darla K. Zelenitsky, David Ian Kay, and Mark A. Norell (2017)
Dinosaur incubation periods directly determined from growth-line counts in embryonic teeth show reptilian-grade development.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (advance online publication)
Little is known regarding nonavian dinosaur embryology. Embryological period relates to myriad aspects of development, life history, and evolution. In reptiles incubation is slow, whereas in birds it is remarkably rapid. Because birds are living dinosaurs, rapid incubation has been assumed for all dinosaurs. We discovered daily forming growth lines in teeth of embryonic nonavian dinosaurs revealing incubation times. These lines show slow reptilian-grade development spanning months. The rapid avian condition likely evolved within birds prior to the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) mass extinction event. Prolonged incubation exposed nonavian dinosaur eggs and attending parents to destructive influences for long periods. Slow development may have affected their ability to compete with more rapidly generating populations of birds, reptiles, and mammals following the K–Pg cataclysm.
Birds stand out from other egg-laying amniotes by producing relatively small numbers of large eggs with very short incubation periods (average 11–85 d). This aspect promotes high survivorship by limiting exposure to predation and environmental perturbation, allows for larger more fit young, and facilitates rapid attainment of adult size. Birds are living dinosaurs; their rapid development has been considered to reflect the primitive dinosaurian condition. Here, nonavian dinosaurian incubation periods in both small and large ornithischian taxa are empirically determined through growth-line counts in embryonic teeth. Our results show unexpectedly slow incubation (2.8 and 5.8 mo) like those of outgroup reptiles. Developmental and physiological constraints would have rendered tooth formation and incubation inherently slow in other dinosaur lineages and basal birds. The capacity to determine incubation periods in extinct egg-laying amniotes has implications for dinosaurian embryology, life history strategies, and survivorship across the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction event.