WASHINGTON - A new study of a remarkably preserved fossil of a duckbilled dinosaur has revealed that the prehistoric reptile had skin like that of birds and crocodiles.
According to a report in National Geographic News, advanced imaging and chemical techniques revealed that the 66-million-year-old “mummified” duckbilled dinosaur had two layers of skin, as do modern vertebrates, including humans.
Such a discovery was possible because the dinosaur’s skin fossilized before bacteria had a chance to eat up the tissue.
It is “absolutely amazing to be able to identify organic molecules from soft tissue that belonged to a beast that died over 66 million years ago,” said excavation leader Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Britain’s University of Manchester. “It’s certainly in my top ten all-time (most significant) fossils,” he added.
Tyler Lyson, a teenager at the time, discovered Dakota, as the fossil was later dubbed, in 1999 on his family’s North Dakota property.
No one knows how the hippo-size animal died. But, scientists do know that the body was probably buried rapidly.
The resulting low-oxygen environment and the apparent lack of disturbance to the site made Dakota a “world-class dinosaur” fossil, according to the new study.
With electron microscopes and x-rays, Manning discovered that Dakota had cell-like structures indicative of two-ply skin: a thin surface layer plus an underlying layer of dense connective tissues.
That’s just like skin of modern birds and reptiles, which scientists believe are closely related to duckbilled dinosaurs.
Protein-recovery techniques used on the skin and a claw detected amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Proteins themselves, complex molecules that degrade easily over time, were not found, however.
But, Manning did identify molecules that would have broken down proteins in Dakota’s body.
That’s like finding fragments of a broken vase instead of the intact vase, explained Tom Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland.
“What’s really nice about the new research is this protein-recovery strategy. It’s the first time the skin of such a big plant-eating dinosaur has been analyzed so deeply,” said Holtz.
“That Dakota’s skin resembles modern vertebrate skin is not surprising but nonetheless comforting,” he added.
Understanding the exact environments that froze Dakota in time may help paleontologists better target future fossil hunts, according to lead study author Manning. (ANI)