Dino Dummy

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Dino-mummy shows some skin

Fossilized duckbill dinosaur provides rare clues about diet and appearance

By Alan Boyle

Oct. 10 —  A mummified dinosaur, unwrapped from the rocks of Montana, has revealed how the creature looked and how it lived 77 million years ago — down to the texture of its skin and the contents of its stomach, scientists say.

THE DUCKBILL DINOSAUR, nicknamed Leonardo, was fossilized in an unusual way, its discoverers reported Thursday at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in Norman, Okla. Only a handful of such dinosaur mummies are known to exist, they said.

Mummified fossils are by no means like the linen-wrapped Egyptian remains from mere thousands of years ago. Rather, the specimens have turned to minerals in such a way that they preserve the look of the skin and internal tissue. In the past, scientists have theorized that mummified dinosaur flesh was dried out before it became a fossil. But researchers at the Judith River Dinosaur Institute and Phillips County Museum in Malta, Montana, believe Leonardo took a different path to posterity.

“We think that it was buried in wet river sand around 77 million years ago, and much of the flesh was intact when fossilization started,” said Dave Trexler, paleontologist with Timescale Adventures and a co-author of Leonardo’s technical description. “The pollen from its stomach also shows that the environment was too wet for much desiccation to take place before burial.”

The other co-authors are Nate Murphy, curator of paleontology at the Phillips County Museum; and geologist Mark Thompson, a member of the discovery team who worked on preparing the specimen.

“A very rare sequence of events was necessary for this type of preservation to occur,” Thompson said in a news release on the discovery. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime find.”

The two-ton, 23-foot-long (7-meter-long) fossil was discovered in the summer of 2000 and went on display this summer, after thousands of hours of preparatory work. Paleontologists say Leonardo was a brachylophosaurus — a type of duckbill dinosaur, or hadrosaur — who died when it was about 3 years old.

The fossil features a three-dimensional rock cast of the right shoulder muscle and throat tissue, along with traces of the skin, toenails, beak and internal organs. Within the fossilized stomach, researchers reportedly could make out shapes from Leonardo’s last lunch: ferns, conifers and a magnolia-type plant.

The researchers said such details could shed new light on how such dinosaurs were built and how they moved. For example, the plant-eating species might have used its forelimbs more than previously thought, based on an analysis of the fossilized muscles. Even the stomach contents could provide insights into the flora of the Late Cretaceous period.

Mummified dinosaur fossils have also been found over the years in Wyoming, and a tyrannosaur specimen found in Wyoming’s Lance Creek Fossil Area may have retained an impression of the meat-eating creature’s skin, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno reported last year.


Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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