The Exquisitely Preserved ‘Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs’ Has Been Named

Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada
Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada

Experts say the spectacularly well-preserved nodosaur now on display at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum (RTM) represents a new species—a hulking, armored beast that was not too proud to hide when predators were on the prowl. The research team described this "dinosaur equivalent of a tank" in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

The nodosaur's massive remains were uncovered by miners in Alberta in 2011 in what was a seabed about 110 million years ago, when the creature died. The enormous block of stone and fossil was transferred to the museum, where technician Mark Mitchell set about freeing the specimen from its final resting place.

A researcher with a small pick prepares a dinosaur specimen.

The task took Mitchell more than five years and 7000 hours. Every one of them was worth it: The results are breathtaking.

Closeup of a nodosaur fossil.

"This nodosaur is truly remarkable in that it is completely covered in preserved scaly skin, yet is also preserved in three dimensions, retaining the original shape of the animal. The result is that the animal looks almost the same today as it did back in the Early Cretaceous," museum scientist Caleb Brown said in a statement. "If you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping. ... It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens—the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

While Mitchell chipped away at the stone tomb, Brown and his colleagues began trying to identify the animal inside. They knew it was a member of the stocky, heavily armored nodosaur family, but they couldn't figure out which one.

Eventually they realized why—it's not a species or genus anyone has ever seen before. Even so, the incredible quality of the museum's specimen made it possible for them to reconstruct what it might have looked like in life.

Chemical analysis of the nodosaur's scales and horn sheaths indicated the presence of a reddish-gold pigment called pheomelanin. In people, pheomelanin is what gives redheads their coppery locks and lends our lips and nipples their pinkish color. In nodosaurs, it probably turned them orange.

Some parts of them, at least. The researchers realized that their specimen, a herbivore, most likely had a pale belly, like a squirrel, and darker coloration on its back. This color patterning is called countershading. It's used to help animals blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.

That's right: Apparently the dinosaur's massive punk spikes and tough hide were not enough to keep it safe. It needed camouflage, too.

"Strong predation on a massive, heavily armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been," Brown said.

The team named their new species Borealopelta markmitchelli. The genus name is a combination of "borealis" (Latin for "northern") and "pelta" (Greek for "shield'"). The species name is a tribute to Mitchell, the scientists write, for his "patient and skilled" revealing of their pride and joy.

All images courtesy of the Royal Tyrell Museum.

The Fossil of a Human-Sized Penguin Has Been Unearthed in New Zealand

DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images
DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images

Penguins are known for looking cute and cuddly, but if the monster penguins of the Paleocene epoch were still around today, they might have developed a different reputation. As The Guardian reports, the fossil of a new species of one of these giant prehistoric penguins was recently discovered in New Zealand, and scientists say it would have gone head-to-head with many adult humans.

The bird, dubbed Crossvallia waiparensis, stood about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 175 pounds. For comparison, emperor penguins weigh up to 88 pounds and can reach 3 feet 8 inches in height. The prehistoric bird waddled the Earth some time between 66 and 56 million years ago—shortly after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and marine reptiles, which were probably its main predators.

An amateur paleontologist named Leigh Love discovered the creature's fossilized leg bones on New Zealand's South Island. From those fossils alone, a team of scientists from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand and the Senckenberg natural history museum in Germany were able to estimate the penguin's height and weight and determine that it belonged to a previously undiscovered species. The large leg bones also indicate that the animal was more reliant on its feet for paddling through the water than the penguins of today.

Crossvallia waiparensis is massive by today's penguin standards, but it's not even the largest prehistoric penguin that we know of. When carnivorous reptiles began disappearing from the world's oceans, the waters opened up for new predators like penguins to flourish. Kumimanu biceae is estimated to have weighed about 223 pounds; Palaeeudyptes klekowskii may have weighed 253 pounds and stretched 6 feet 5 inches long.

[h/t The Guardian]

College Student Finds a 65-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skull During Paleontology Dig in North Dakota

Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Fossil Excavators

Paleontology is often a game of luck, and an undergraduate student at the University of California, Merced recently hit the jackpot. As CBS News reports, Harrison Duran, a fifth-year biology student with an emphasis in ecology and evolutionary biology, was on a dig in the Badlands of North Dakota when he struck upon the partial skull of a 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil.

Duran trekked out to the Badlands with "bone digger" and Mayville State University biology professor Michael Kjelland expecting to find plant fossils on their two-week dig. Among the fossilized wood and leaves, they discovered something else: the remains of a Triceratops, one of the most iconic dinosaurs of all time.

Duran, whose passion for dinosaurs predates his academic career, was ecstatic. “I can’t quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull,” he told UC Merced. “I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so it was a pretty big deal.”

The specimen was named Alice in honor of the owner of the land where it was found. After a week-long excavation, the partial skull was covered in foil and plaster and transported by truck to Kjelland's lab. Kjelland noted that such fossils are susceptible to theft (Triceratops skulls can be worth a quarter-million dollars), but he hopes to eventually make Alice viewable to the public. His ideal scenario would be touring the skull around various locations, but the fossil must be further analyzed and prepared for display before that can happen.

The Dakotas are famous for their dinosaur fossils. Triceratops are especially prevalent there—in South Dakota, the species is the official state fossil.

Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Fossil Excavators

[h/t CBS News]

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