Facts About Oviraptor, the Egg Thief Dinosaur

Illustration representing Oviraptor

One of the most spectacularly misunderstood of all dinosaurs, Oviraptor wasn't really an "egg thief" (the Greek translation of its name) but a well-behaved feathered theropod of the later Mesozoic Era. So, how much do you really know about Oviraptor?

Oviraptor Wasn't Really an Egg Thief

When the remains of Oviraptor were first discovered, by the famous fossil-hunter Roy Chapman Andrews, they were perched atop what appeared to be a clutch of Protoceratops eggs. Then, decades later, paleontologists unearthed another feathered theropod, closely related to Oviraptor, sitting atop what were indisputably its own eggs. We can't know for sure, but the weight of the evidence is that those alleged "Protoceratops" eggs were actually laid by Oviraptor itself--and the name of this dinosaur was a huge misunderstanding.

Brooded Eggs

As dinosaurs go, Oviraptor was a relatively attentive parent, brooding its eggs (that is, incubating them with its body heat) until they hatched, and then caring for the hatchlings for at least a short time afterward, weeks or possibly months. However, we can't say for sure whether this task fell to the males or females--in many modern bird species, males assume the bulk of the parental care, and we now know that birds descended from feathered dinosaurs like Oviraptor.

Bird Mimic Dinosaur


Conty / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

When he first described Oviraptor, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, made a (somewhat understandable) mistake: he classified it as an ornithomimid ("bird mimic") dinosaur, in the same family as Ornithomimus and Gallimimus. (The ornithomimids didn't come by their name because they had feathers; rather, these speedy, long-legged dinosaurs were built like modern ostriches and emus.) As is so often the case, it was left to later paleontologists to correct this error.

Lived Around the Same Time as Velociraptor

As dinosaurs ending in "-raptor" go, Oviraptor is much less well-known than Velociraptor, which preceded it by a few million years--but which may still have been extant in the same central Asian territory when Oviraptor arrived on the scene during the late Cretaceous period, about 75 million years ago. And believe it or not, but at eight feet long and 75 pounds, Oviraptor would have dwarfed its supposedly fearsome cousin, which (despite what you saw in Jurassic Park) was only about the size of a large chicken!

They Were (Almost Certainly) Covered in Feathers

Aside from its unjust reputation as an egg thief, Oviraptor is well known for being one of the most birdlike of all dinosaurs. This theropod possessed a sharp, toothless beak, and it may also have sported a chicken-like wattle, of uncertain function. Although no direct evidence has been adduced from its sparse fossil remains, Oviraptor was almost certainly covered with feathers, the rule rather than the exception for the small meat-eating dinosaurs of the later Cretaceous period.

Not Technically a True Raptor

Confusingly, just because a dinosaur has the Greek root "raptor" in its name doesn't necessarily mean that it was a true raptor (a family of meat-eating theropods characterized, among other things, by the single, curved claws on each of their hind feet). Even more confusingly, non-raptor "raptors" were still closely related to true raptors, since many of these small theropods possessed feathers, beaks, and other bird-like attributes. 

Probably Fed on Mollusks and Crustaceans

The shape of a dinosaur's mouth and jaws can tell us a lot about what it preferred to eat on any given day. Rather than munching on the eggs of Protoceratops and other ceratopsians, Oviraptor probably subsisted on mollusks and crustaceans, which it cracked open with its toothless beak. It's also not inconceivable that Oviraptor supplemented its diet with the occasional plant or small lizard, though direct proof for this is lacking.

Lent Its Name to a Whole Family of Dinosaurs


The name Oviraptor with a capital "O" refers to a specific genus of theropod, but small-o "oviraptors" comprise a whole family of small, skittering, and confusingly similar Oviraptor-like dinosaurs, including the allusively named Citipati, Conchoraptor, and Khaan. Typically, these feathered theropods (sometimes referred to as "oviraptorosaurs") lived in central Asia, a hotbed of bird-like dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous period.

The Species Name of Oviraptor Means Lover of Ceratopsians

As if the genus name Oviraptor weren't insulting enough, this dinosaur was saddled at its discovery with the species name philoceratops, Greek for "lover of ceratopsians." This doesn't mean that Oviraptor was sexually kinky, but that it (supposedly) lusted after the eggs of Protoceratops, as referenced in slide #2. (To date, O. philoceratops is the only identified Oviraptor species, and nearly a hundred years after its christening, the prospects for another named species remain slim.)

Oviraptor May (or May Not) Have Had a Head Crest

Given the preponderance of crests, wattles, and other cranial ornaments among the oviraptorosaurs of central Asia, it's extremely likely that Oviraptor was similarly adorned. The trouble is that soft tissues don't tend to preserve well in the fossil record, and the supposed Oviraptor specimens that bear traces of these structures have since been reattributed to another, extremely similar feathered dinosaur of late Cretaceous central Asia, Citipati.