There's something scary about the thought of dinosaurs – an idea David Evans, associate curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, knows very well.
"We originally thought of dinosaurs as big, stupid animals that were basically just giant lizards. We also thought that they were very terrifying creatures. T-Rex, of course, is something you'd think of in your nightmares," he said.
But new Canadian research reveals their softer side. "...They may not have been so stupid or blood-thirsty as we thought. They may have actually been very caring parents," Dr. Evans explained.
He was head of a Toronto-led international research team that has uncovered a 190-million-year-old dinosaur nesting site – the oldest ever unearthed by more than 100-million years.
Their findings, including multiple years' worth of nests, eggs, embryos and even tiny baby dinosaur footprints, were announced Monday at the Royal Ontario Museum prior to their publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Evans, along with University of Toronto biology professor Robert Reisz, led a team of researchers from around the globe on a series of expeditions over four years in South Africa. They discovered more than they expected: layer upon layer of dinosaur nesting sites dating back to the very earliest point of dinosaur existence.
"What's so important about it is that it gives us a very detailed window into the evolution of reproduction in dinosaurs right at the base of their family tree, just as they were starting to take over the world," Dr. Evans said.
The nesting site is especially interesting because it suggests the massospondylus dinosaurs – a relative of the brontosaurus – returned to the same nesting site over and over, nested in groups and may have raised their hatchlings there, according to Dr. Reisz.
"The nests themselves and the footprints tell us a lot about these early dinosaurs' reproductive behaviour," he said. "It's much more sophisticated than we ever thought."
The latest discoveries were presented briefly Monday morning and fossilized embryos are on display at the ROM's Dinosaurs Eggs and Babies exhibit, open until May 1.
Though Dr. Evans said he can't put his finger on what it is about dinosaurs in general that piques our interest, he said he knows why baby dinosaurs are so intriguing.
"They allow us to view dinosaurs more like real animals rather than just the monsters of our dreams."