Scientists announced monday the discovery of an extraordinarily preserved "dinosaur mummy" with much of its tissues and bones still encased in an uncollapsed envelope of skin.
Preliminary studies of the 67-million-year-old hadrosaur, named Dakota, are already altering theories of what the ancient creatures' skin looked like and how quickly they moved, project researchers say. Further investigations may reveal detailed information about soft tissues, which could help unlock secrets about the evolution of dinosaurs and their descendents, the scientists added.
For now, the team continues to examine the rare specimen, which included preserved tendons and ligaments, and to prepare scientific articles on the find for publication.
"This specimen exceeds the jackpot," said excavation leader Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Britain's University of Manchester. Most dinosaurs are known only from their bones, which are seldom found joined together as they would be in real life.
But "we're looking at a three-dimensional skin envelope," Manning said. "In many places it's complete and intact—around the tail, arms, and legs and part of the body."
Find of a Lifetime
The hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, was discovered in 1999 by then-teenage paleontologist Tyler Lyson on his family's North Dakota property.
It was an extremely fortuitous find, because the odds of mummification are slim, researchers noted. First the dinosaur body had to escape predators, scavengers, and degradation by weather and water. Then a chemical process must have mineralized the tissue before bacteria ate it. And finally, the remains had to survive millions of years undamaged.
"What usually would have been wiped out by the decay process—the mineralization has been so rapid that it is trapped and preserved," Manning said.
Showing Some Skin
Research into Dakota's fossilized skin is also yielding image-altering clues to how hadrosaurs may have appeared, Manning's team says.
Though the skin has lost its color, much of its texture is still intact, allowing scientists to map it in 3-D to see what Dakota might have looked like. "There seems to be a variation in scale size that might possibly correlate—as it does in modern reptiles in many cases—with changes in color," Manning said.
"There seems to be striping patternations associated with joint areas on the arm," he added, "and there's interesting information we're looking at in the tail as well."
The 3-D preservation of the skin has also prompted the researchers to search for traces of unfossilized soft tissue in the hopes that it might yield protein.
Remains to Be Seen
Other experts remain tight-lipped about the potential of Dakota to yield similar information as the T. rex studies.
Mary Schweitzer, a North CarolinaStateUniversity scientist who worked on one of those projects, declined to comment until formal publication. And Peggy Ostrom, a zoologist at MichiganStateUniversity who also studies ancient proteins for clues to how organisms are related to each other, commented only in general terms.
"It's rare to find an articulated skeleton and even more so to find one with fossilized soft tissue," she wrote in an email. "If such finds show extraordinary preservation, they tempt us to wonder about the possibility of finding [unfossilized] biomolecules that might be remnants of the ancient organism."
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)