Online Fossil Buy Leads to ‘Chicken from Hell’ Discovery

A grad student has discovered a never-before-seen dinosaur after he purchased fossils online for a class project. The beaked beast, nicknamed “pharaoh’s dawn chicken from hell,” roamed Earth during the late Cretaceous period (100.5 million to 66 million years ago) and hails from the South Dakota section of the Hell Creek Formation (which dates to around 65.5 million years ago), according to a new study, published Jan. 24 in the journal PLOS One.

A new hell chicken

Study lead author Kyle Atkins-Weltman, a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University, told Live Science he purchased four fossils for $5,000 in 2020 when he couldn’t find the bones needed to complete one of his first research projects. The hind limb fossils were supposed to be from a cassowary-like dinosaur, Anzu wyliei, nicknamed the “chicken from hell”. However, when Atkins-Weltman had the fossils scanned, he discovered they were from an unidentified species.

“I felt my heart skip a beat,” he said. “I was like, is this really happening to me this early in my career?”

After careful consideration, Atkins-Weltman settled on “Eoneophron infernalis” as the name of the new species. Eoneophron combines the Greek word “eos,” meaning “dawn” — identifying the species as ancient — and “Neophron,” which is the genus name for Egyptian vultures, also called “pharaoh’s chicken.” The reference to pharaoh’s chicken meant Atkins-Weltman included the chicken nickname of A. wylieii while also honoring his recently deceased pet Nile monitor lizard, named “Pharaoh.”

“He was an important part of my life,” Atkins-Weltman, who has autism, said. “He was an emotional support animal, and he helped me get through the most difficult parts of being a scientist and dealing with all the stress and everything that comes with it.”

The species name “infernalis” is derived from the Latin word for “hell,” which is a nod to the Hell Creek Formation and completes the A. wylieii “chicken from hell” reference.

E. infernalis is a close relative of A. wyliei in the Caenagnathidae family and are both oviraptorosaurs characterized by long, slender limbs and toothless beaks. A. wyliei weighed around 440 to 660 pounds (200 to 300 kilograms), while E. infernalis was around 170 pounds (78 kg). Size isn’t the only thing that separates the two dinosaurs. The astragalus and calcaneus ankle bones are fused in both hell chickens, but they are also fused to the tibia on E. infernalis. The study authors speculate that the extra fusing may have enabled the new species to handle stresses better while running.

Implications for dinosaur diversity

The discovery of E. infernalis has implications for understanding dinosaur diversity before their extinction 66 million years ago. Some scientists have argued that dinosaurs were already declining before the asteroid impact that wiped them out, based on apparent decreases in the number of species in some fossil formations. However, others have suggested that this pattern may be due to biases in fossil preservation and sampling.

The fact that E. infernalis was misidentified as A. wyliei until recently shows that there may be more hidden diversity among dinosaurs than previously thought. Atkins-Weltman said that he hopes his discovery will inspire other researchers to reexamine fossils that may belong to new species.

“It’s possible that there are many more dinosaurs out there waiting to be discovered,” he said.

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