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  • An artist's impression of Halszkaraptor escuilliei: a close relative of the velociraptor, it more closely resembles a duck.

    An artist's impression of Halszkaraptor escuilliei: a close relative of the velociraptor, it more closely resembles a duck. | Photo: Lukas Panzarin and Andrea Cau

Published 18 January 2018

Rescued from the black market, the fossil remains of the duck-like dinosaur – which experts believe may have swum like a penguin – have caused much excitement among paleontologists.

Scientists are examining the fossil remains of a duck-like creature which were rescued from the black market and may represent the world's first amphibious dinosaur discovery.

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"What is very special about it is that it looks very weird," says paleontologist Vincent Fernandez, of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, who is leading the study of the rare creature. "It doesn't look like any other dinosaur that we know so far."

What's so particular about the never-before-seen species, Halszkaraptor escuilliei, is that it's the only known dinosaur that could both walk and swim.

Andrea Cau is the vertebrate paleontologist at the Geological and Palaeontological Museum in Bologna, Italy, responsible for naming the odd-looking find.

Cau says that when escuilliei roamed the Earth between 75 million and 71 million years ago in what is now Mongolia, it walked on webbed feet, like a duck, but also had flippers, which most likely means it could also swim.  

The fossil shows that the animal, which lived during the Late Cretaceous period, had a long neck, like a swan, which allowed it to dip its head into the water to fish.

Its small teeth curved backward like a crocodile's, enabling it to nab small fish, and its bill helped it navigate through the waters of what at the time would have resembled the Nile River.

"When we add up all the [characteristics] it shows that it was an amphibious animal – it was able to run on land, as we imagine dinosaurs running around, and on top of that it was able to go into water," Fernandez said.

The creature's body was about the size of a mallard duck, but with a long tail and longer legs, Fernandez notes. A theropod, it's related to velociraptors - the stars of hit movie Jurassic Park. 

"When I saw the fossil the first time, I was shocked," says Cau, coauthor of the study which first revealed the remains and was recently published in Nature magazine.

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The fascinating find went through a long journey before it reached the hands of Cau and Fernandez. Months ago, famed fossil dealer François Escuillie learned of a Mongolian fossil available on the black market that had a birdlike head and a gooselike neck.

Escuillie suspects the fossil had been excavated from Mongolia's southern region decades ago.

Once he secured the specimen, he turned it over to Pascal Godefroit: a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who then alerted Cau.

Some scientists, however, have yet to be convinced of its authenticity. "It is a stunning fossil," Stephen Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. "I just have some nagging doubts about whether the whole thing is one genuine skeleton."

"The thing that piques my curiosity is that the body really looks like a dromaeosaur, a raptor dinosaur, and the head really looks like an alvarezsaur – that's another type of small dinosaur."

For now the fossil is being kept in Belgium, but researchers say it will eventually be returned to Mongolia.

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