Not just boring old bones: 6 incredible dinosaur fossils
While huge dinosaur skeletons sure look impressive towering over us in museums, there’s only so much we can learn from dusty old bones. But occasionally more striking specimens turn up bearing skin or feathers, encased in gemstones, and even preserving traces of DNA, against all odds. New Atlas rounds up some of the most incredible fossil finds of recent years.
Amber is great at preserving insects, although it rarely captures vertebrates. But in 2015, a truly stunning piece of amber turned up in a market in Myanmar, containing a section of a dinosaur’s tail, complete with feathers.
A total of eight vertebrae were found inside the amber, surrounded by fluffy feathers and soft tissues. Judging by CT scans, the bones and the feathers were found to be more “primitive” than those of modern birds or their relatives. Scientists were even able to take samples from the tissue where it meets the surface, and determined that it belonged to a small member of the Coelurosaur family. They also found traces of a compound from red blood cells, which you just can’t get in dusty old bones.
Whole skull in amber
On the other side of the coin, an entire skull was recently discovered encased in amber. The new species to which it belongs, named Oculudentavis, is not only the smallest dinosaur ever found, but it appears to be a kind of “missing link” to modern birds.
The creature had a beak full of sharp teeth, indicating it probably ate insects. While it looks decidedly bird-like, CT scans reveal it had quite reptilian eyes, meaning it helps patch up gaps in the evolutionary tree.
Soft tissues just don’t last very long, as animal or microbial scavengers eat it away. But if you keep those things away and the conditions are right, tissues can be preserved for much longer. And that’s exactly what happened to one hapless Iguanodon, who fell into a swamp 133 million years ago.
Thanks to highly-acidic and low-oxygen water, the swamp effectively pickled the dinosaur’s brain. That preserved it long enough for the soft tissue to become mineralized the same way bone does during fossilization. The end result is an exceptionally detailed look at parts of these ancient animals that we don’t normally get to see. Scientists were even able to make out the impressions of tiny features like collagen strands and blood vessels.
“Sleeping” fossil with skin and scales
Normally, the pressure of layers of rock built up over millions of years of squashes fossils flat, so it’s hard to get a sense of how dinosaurs looked as living, three-dimensional creatures. But in 2011, palaeontologists found a fossil that was so exceptionally well-preserved that it looked like it was just taking a nap.
The fossil is a new species of nodosaur, and more than just bones have been preserved. It’s wrapped in its heavy coat of armor, with skin and scales still intact, revealing that it was a reddish-brown color with a lighter belly. Not only that, its stomach contents are still in there, too, giving new insights into its diet.
This stunning nodosaur can be seen at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada.
Fossils are mostly found imprinted in rock, but in rare cases they can actually turn up encased in opal. When that happens, it’s usually just a small shell here or a tooth there – but last year palaeontologists in Australia discovered an entire herd of opalized dinosaurs.
Opals form when silica-infused water pools in cracks and hollows in rock, eventually hardening into the shape of their container. Sometimes, those hollows are left behind after bones decay away. In this case, these blue-green shimmering gems are shaped like toes, vertebrae, shoulder blades and other bones from a new species in the Iguanodon family.
The haul contained not only 60 bones from one dinosaur – the most complete individual skeleton ever found in opal – but also opalized bones from at least three other animals, which have never been found together before.
Despite what movies may tell us, DNA is far too fragile to ever be discovered from creatures that lived tens of millions of years ago. Or at least, that’s what conventional thinking says. But a recent (and somewhat controversial) study found evidence of dinosaur DNA in fossils.
While studying skull fragments from a young Hypacrosaurus, researchers discovered well-preserved cartilage cells. When they applied staining substances that bind to DNA fragments, a pattern emerged that matched what would be expected for modern cells.
The results are so groundbreaking that the results have been called into question by other scientists. But even if dino DNA is in there, it will be too degraded to do much with besides rethink our entire understanding of what can survive the ravages of time.