The Moment of Discovery

Eggs were everywhere. As we strode across the mud-cracked flats exposed beneath the banded ridges of crimson rock that radiated under the searing Patagonian sun, crew members began kneeling down to examine small, dark gray fragments of rounded rock with a curious texture. Picking up these chunks for closer inspection, we could see that the surface was sculpted into hundreds of small bumps and depressions. We knew immediately from the distinctive texture that we had found something startling —dinosaur eggs.

A quiet but elated sense of amazement enveloped the crew. Our morning routine of casual prospecting had instantly turned into a moment of stunning discovery. With a bit of careful reconnaissance and a healthy dose of good luck, we had stumbled across a fantastic new site, the kind of site we had been hoping to discover our entire lives—remote, untouched, and crammed full of fossils that no one had ever seen before.

We slowly came to our senses and began to take stock. Scanning the scene around us, we were once again stunned by the sight of thousands of egg fragments littered across the desolate Patagonian landscape. In many places the fragments of eggs were so abundant that we couldn't walk without stepping on pieces of fossil eggshell. These were not the small bones of the ancient birds we had originally hoped to find, but serendipity, a common companion on pale-ontological expeditions, had not let us down.

Before us lay a scene of unparalleled paleontological carnage in the form of thousands of eggs. Beneath the weathered surface of the ground, many eggs appeared to be completely intact, as if unhatched. They were large, as dinosaur eggs go, but not enormous—about five to six inches across and almost spherical. As we stared at these fossil treasures, the eggs seemed to stare back and pose numerous puzzling questions. Luis pondered the paleontological mysteries:

• What kind of dinosaurs had laid the eggs?

• How had they been preserved for millions of years after they were laid?

• Were they laid in discrete nests or deposited randomly across the ancient landscape?

• Were they all laid during the same breeding season?

• What other animals had lived in the area at the time?

Meanwhile, Lowell wondered more about the geological riddles:

• Exactly how many million years ago were the eggs laid?

• What was the environment like around the nesting ground?

• And most intriguingly, what kind of calamity had occurred to keep all these eggs from hatching?

Luis knew that eggs somewhat similar in size and shape, along with even larger ones with thicker shells, had previously been found in other areas of the world, as well as in Patagonia. In fact, the first dinosaur eggs ever found, near the end of the nineteenth century, were similar eggs from layers of rock in France that dated from near the end of the Mesozoic era, about 70 million years ago. Paleontologists had long speculated that these large eggs had been laid by sauropods —a group of titanic, long-necked, four-legged dinosaurs that includes the largest animals ever known to have walked the earth. But no one had ever found fossils of embryos inside those eggs, so the identity of the dinosaurs that had laid the eggs could not be established for certain.

After discussing the puzzles posed by the eggs, our sense of elation quickly dissolved into determination when Luis issued the appropriate challenge. We had to find fossil bones inside one of the eggs to solve the mystery of which kind of dinosaur had laid them. So, the whole crew once again set off across the flats in pursuit of an even rarer fossil treasure: a fossilized embryo.

We knew that finding an embryo would not be easy. The fragile bones and tissues of an embryonic animal almost always decay rapidly after it dies, and these embryos had died more than 65 million years ago when all the large dinosaurs went extinct. To find an embryo in the eggs would require not only unique conditions in the ancient environment where the fossils had formed, but also a lot of patience. We would have to bend over to pick up thousands of egg fragments and carefully examine each one's fossilized contents. It was a daunting task, but we felt that our chances were good because there were so many eggs and the rocks in this region had previously produced unlikely fossil jewels. The expedition had just begun, and the crew's morale could not be higher. We had weeks ahead of us for exploring this paleontological paradise.

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