It's a Duck, It's a Rooster, It's a … Dinosaur?

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A reconstruction of Edmontosaurus sporting a fleshy "rooster" comb.
Bell, Fanti, Currie, Arbour, Current Biology

What has a mouth like a duck's and a comb like a rooster's? A dinosaur that roamed North America 75 million years ago.

A new fossil discovery reveals the duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus regalis sported a fleshy comb on its head, similar to the ones on modern-day roosters. No such comb has ever been discovered before on a dinosaur.

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"We're never short of being surprised by what these animals looked like," said study researcher Phil Bell, a paleontologist at the University of New England in Australia. [Paleo-Art: Colorful Images Bring Dinosaurs to Life]

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Finding the fossil

Duck-billed dinosaurs, or hadrosaurs, were large herbivores that filled the same ecological niche as deer or kangaroo today. In the past century, paleontologists have discovered several hadrosaur fossils with skin impressions pressed into the rock around the bones. These "mummy" specimens, so dubbed because they reveal more than just bone, show that hadrosaurs had pebbly skin not unlike that of today's crocodiles and birds.

But skin impressions rarely preserve well around the skull, Bell said.

Bell's colleague, Federico Fanti, discovered the new E. regalis fossil in west central Alberta, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the town of Grande Prairie. They were surveying a well-known fossil site when Fanti noticed a string of vertebrae peeking out of a coffin-size boulder, Bell told LiveScience. The researchers had not found many bones still articulated in their original configurations, so they decided to collect the specimen.

"Because the block was too big to move on its own, we used a rock saw in an attempt to trim it down," Bell said. "But no sooner did we start cutting into it than we found the first skin impression. We kind of had to bite the bullet and collect the whole block."

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It was seven months before the team could get to the site with a truck and trailer, because the nearby Redwillow River was so high. But in 2011, the researchers drove a truck across the river, winched the boulder onto a trailer and brought it out of the field.

While Bell was preparing the fossil, he discovered something even more amazing than skin impressions.

"Having a good idea of the outline of the animal, I put my chisel into the rock, not expecting to hit anything, and lo and behold, I realized I'd put my chisel straight through the middle of some skin impressions that shouldn't have been there," he said.

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