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'Chicken from hell': 8-foot dinosaur with beak, claws, strong tail

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A dinosaur, nicknamed the "chicken from hell," was described by a team of paleontologists in a study released Wednesday, and researchers say it is even stranger then they first imagined.

The dinosaur's official name is Anzu wyliei, but it was nicknamed the chicken from hell because it reminded researchers of a giant clawed chicken with a neck like an ostrich. (See the images above.)

"It definitely looks more like a bird than a dinosaur," said Matthew Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and the lead author of the paper. "But it was big. This guy was 7 to 8 feet tall with its head extended."

The dinosaur had a rounded crest on its head and a long, strong tail. Its jaws were tipped by a toothless beak, and it was probably covered in feathers. When Lamanna was asked what kind of sound Anzu wyliei might have made, he couldn't say for sure, but was willing to venture a guess. "In my mind's eye it's a squawking," he said. "These guys are about as bird-like as you can get and be a non-avian dinosaur."

The description of Anzu wyliei comes from three fossils found in North and South Dakota that together make an almost complete skeleton. The fossils were discovered in rock that is about 66 million years old, which means Anzu wyliei lived at the tail end of the age of dinosaurs, at the same time as the T-rex and stegosaurus.

The researchers were excited to describe the fossils not just because they belonged to such a strange-looking animal, but because they gave paleontologists their first good look at a family of dinosaurs known as Caenagnathidae (pronounced SEE-nuh-Nay-thih-DAY). Paleontologists have been finding bits and pieces of fossils from this family of dinosaur for 100 years, but were never able to assemble a complete specimen.

"Now that we've finally got a head-to-toe fossil, we know more about this entire group of dinosaurs," Lamanna said.

Caenagnathidae is a subset of a larger group of dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs, most of which were much smaller then the chicken from hell. When the research team first embarked on describing the Anzu wyliei fossils a decade ago, they had never seen such a large oviraptorosaur. However, an even larger one was described in 2005 that stood a walloping 26 feet. It is aptly named Gigantoraptor.

"We're finding that caenagnathids were an amazingly diverse bunch of dinosaurs," Lamanna said. "Apparently these oviraptorosaurs occupied a much wider range of body sizes than originally thought."

But perhaps the coolest part of this find is that it was made in the Hell Creek Formation, one of the most picked-over areas of the world for dinosaur fossils.

"The fact that this big, distinctive, very weird-looking animal remained effectively hidden in one of the best-explored set of rocks shows you how much more out there is left to be found," Lamanna said.

If awesome dinosaur discoveries make your day, follow me on Twitter for more like this.

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