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A Canadian dinosaur fossil is considered to be the “best preserved dinosaur on Earth.” Except whether it’s a fossil or a dinosaur mummy is still being debated – years after it was found in the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. What we call it depends on the actual definition of what a “fossil” is versus what a “mummy” is, as per science.
No matter what you call it, it is the single most complete specimen of its kind, and it completely shocked scientists.
The 18-foot-long dinosaur is on display in Alberta, Canada, at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. The museum calls the dinosaur, a Nodosaur, a “one-in-a-billion find,” found in the Suncor Energy Millennium Mine, which sits north of Fort McMurray.
Amazingly, it’s not just bones that you can see. This dinosaur comes complete with scales, skin, and some of its insides still intact. This is why some say it’s a mummy instead of a dinosaur.
One researcher who works at the museum, Caleb Brown, said:
“We don’t just have a skeleton. We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”
In fact, the Nodosaur is so well-preserved that you can even see where its eyes would have been, in addition to individual scales and other armor sported by this herbivore.
The difference between a proper mummy and a fossil is huge. With a mummy, soft tissues are preserved, and sometimes the innards, as are in this particular dinosaur mummy specimen. A fossil is strictly the outline of bones or teeth, or actual bones or teeth unearthed without the skin or innards intact.
In this particular case, the Nodosaur is partially petrified from its head to its hips. This happens much as it does to petrified wood; minerals replace the soft tissues in the fossil or mummy, turning it basically to stone.
According to Brown:
“This is one of the best preserved dinosaurs in the world. … The Skin is made up of individual scales – kind of hexagonal or octagonal polygons, interspersed with osteoderms, which are body armor. What sets it apart is each of those osteoderms has a layer of keratin – the same stuff your fingernails are made of. That is almost never preserved.”
Originally weighing about 3,000 pounds, it now weighs 2,500 after its mummification. Additionally, Brown states that there’s no way to view its bones because they’re hidden under the mummification.
They’ll need to use a CT scan to analyze the insides, which include the guts and bones, to hopefully eventually be able to see more of the mummified fossil. Because the stomach appears to be intact, Brown believes that with a CT scan, researchers will be able to see what the Nodosaur’s last meal was.
The biggest question is, however, just how did it get this way? Since most dinosaur remains found are true fossils – either imprints in shale and other rocks or just bones or teeth — finding a specimen like this dinosaur mummy is truly rare. It is a truly unique specimen since it includes the entire creature and includes soft tissue as well as its innards. Something true fossils never contain.
According to National Geographic, the Nodosaur didn’t live where it was found. It would have lived on land, and eaten vegetation, much like the vegetation that is available in the Florida Everglades.
Most preserved dinosaurs are found near a coastline because of the sediment that tended to trap already dead specimens and preserve them. Alberta would have been extremely ripe for this type of preservation with, what Caleb describes as:
“A large inland sea stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean – very warm, and very shallow…”
This Nodosaur was found inland, “at the bottom of an ancient sea bed” to be exact. The researchers say that it probably washed out to sea after it died, and that’s why it was mummified via a specific decomposition process, and why it was found where it was found.
Called “bloat and float,” by marine biologists, the carcass was probably already decomposing when it was washed out to sea. Then, eventually, the carcass burst and sank to the bottom of the ocean. It was only then that it fell into the sediment, which quickly covered the carcass and preserved it. Brown said of the process that:
“We know [about the bloat and float, and the sinking into the sediment] because we have this impact crater preserved where it was found.”
A combination of low oxygen levels and sediment probably protected the Nodosaur from deteriorating entirely, and eventually allowed it to petrify.
This isn’t the first mummified remains of a dinosaur ever found, either. In 2007, scientists announced a 25-foot-long hadrosaur, a duckbilled dinosaur, was found in North Dakota. This dinosaur mummy specimen was also petrified, and almost perfectly preserved. Another mummified dinosaur, a Brachylophosaurus, was found in Montana in 2001. It too was petrified and sported skin and innards including a heart, liver, and stomach.
Featured Image: Screenshot by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology via Facebook