Organic molecules found in 66-million year old fossil

  • July 13, 2009
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Dakota is classified as an Edmontosaurus, illustrated here courtesy Arthur Weasley.

In 1999 teenager and budding palaeontologist Tyler Lyson discovered the fossil of a mummified dinosaur, later dubbed Dakota, on his family’s farm. Dakota is one of only five dinosaur mummies ever discovered and is an important paleontological find.

Dakota was found with its skin envelope, along with other areas, including its tail, arms and legs, largely intact. In this almost complete form, Dakota is essentially a three-dimensional fossil.

In December 2007 Dr Phil Manning, a palaeontologist at the University of Manchester and the leader of the recent excavation at the site of discovery, said “the skin has been mineralised” and it was possible “Dakota could contain other soft-tissue remnants”, according to the National Geographic website. This means that scientists will have more to study than just bone. Dakota’s preservation allows for research into tissue-based substances such as tendons, muscles and organs. 

On July 3, 2009, researchers said they had found “preserved organic molecules” in Dakota’s skin, according to www.media-newswire.com. Researchers said they believed Dakota’s soft tissues had failed to decay because they were protected by “fine sediments that formed a mineral cast”, preventing bacteria from eating away at the tissue.

To be in this condition, Dakota’s body would have needed to be mineralised, a feat in itself, and remained largely untouched by predators and unharmed by geological changes. Furthermore, Dakota would have had to be buried very soon after its death to be preserved in such an unusual way.

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 Manning, “this is the closest you’re going to get to patting the animal”.

Dakota, a plant-eating hadrosaur, is ranked in Manning’s top-10 fossils and is about 66-million years old. Advanced techniques have shown that Dakota was duckbilled and had a double layer of skin, similar to that of modern day birds and reptiles, which are likely to have been related to the ancient creature.

The rare find, with evidence of skin, tissue, internal organs and bones, provides a great insight into the prehistoric world. The scientific community has been amazed and excited at the discovery; Manning said it was “absolutely gobsmacking”.

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