Dinosaur body has skin and ligaments
* Scientists are able to revise accepted theories
The biological secrets of the dinosaurs could soon be glimpsed after the apparent recovery of organic material from a "mummy" unearthed in the United States.
The remarkable example of a duck-billed dinosaur is in such good condition, with its skin almost entirely intact, that it has already challenged standard theories about the creatures' shape, size and movement.
It could yet, however, offer still greater insight into the evolution and biology of the dinosaurs, if hints that organic matter has been preserved are confirmed.
Such samples could allow scientists to study dinosaur proteins and even DNA, providing unprecedented clues to their life cycle and development.
There is no chance, though, of a Jurassic Park-style resurrection: any biological matter would be too degraded to allow for cloning, even if it were possible to find a suitable surrogate mother.
The mummified hadrosaur, a duck-billed herbivore that lived 67 million years ago, shortly before the dinosaurs became extinct, is also extraordinary for what appears to have happened immediately after its death.
Its remains were discovered entwined with those of a prehistoric crocodile like creature called Borealosuchus, which scientists believe may have died while scavenging on its carcass. "It could be that this Cretaceous crocodile died at the same time," said Phil Manning, of the University of Manchester, who leads the team studying the specimen. "The croc might have crawled inside the dead animal and got stuck."
Evidence that should confirm whether this macabre theory is true has already been collected. A CT scan of the dinosaur's body and tail -one of the largest scans of its kind yet conducted -will be analysed over the coming weeks.
The dinosaur was discovered by Tyler Lyson, then aged 16, in Hell Creek, North Dakota, in 1999, and excavated five years later. It is a young adult hadrosaur of a relatively common species called Edmontosaurus and has been nicknamed Dakota.
Dakota would have walked on two legs, and been 25ft to 30ft (7.5-9m) long and 6ft to 8ft tall at the shoulder, with a weight of 3 to 4 tonnes. Fully grown adults would have reached 40ft and 6 tonnes. Unlike most dinosaur specimens, Dakota was mummified before it fossilised, meaning that almost all the creature's skin and some connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments have been preserved along with its bones.
This has allowed scientists to perform a detailed "autopsy" on the animal, and to reconstruct details of its anatomy as never before. The results will be presented on Sunday in Dino Autopsy, a documentary on the National Geographic Channel.
The size of its "skin envelope" has for the first time enabled researchers to calculate the volume of its tail and hind quarters -normally, these must be inferred from skeleton structure, and estimates have been highly uncertain. This revealed that Edmontosaurus had a much larger posterior than had previously been thought. "This animal had a big arse," Dr Manning said. "Its hind limbs would have been a lot more powerful than we thought. It would have had one hell of a kick."
This also means that Dakota would have been faster than presumed. Bill Sellers, Dr Manning's colleague, has now reconstructed its gait and biomechanics, concluding that it had a top speed of about 28mph (45km/h), making it swifter than one of its most fearsome predators, Tyrannosaurus rex.
The availability of connective tissue has also indicated that Edmontosaurus's vertebrae were spaced at least a centimetre apart, and were not tightly packed in the way that many museums display dinosaurs. This suggests that hadrosaurs were longer than generally thought, and could mean that much larger dinosaurs such as the long-necked sauropods were up to two metres longer.
The skin also shows signs of being striped, which could indicate a camouflage pattern.
The CT scan, which was conducted using a Boeing scanner that is usually used for testing aircraft and spacecraft parts, could reveal whether any internal organs have been preserved beneath the skin.
Dr Manning also said that there are good signs that organic material has been preserved, though this has yet to be confirmed. "We have found biological matter, and we are confident of getting good results," he said. "If it proves to be organic, that could be the first."
* Dino Autopsy is due to be shown on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday at 9pm.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2007
This scaly hadrosaur skin, unearthed in the US, is about 67 million years old
The hadrosaur, seen in a CGI image, is longer than scientists had thought. Photograph by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
"Monster that may put flesh on the bones of history." Times [London, England] 3 Dec. 2007: 8. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
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