Since the dawn of paleontology, scientists have struggled to confirm what dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures may have looked like when they were alive. Now, a team at Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada has brought us closer than ever to understanding our massive planetary ancestors. They discovered a dinosaur fossil that has guts, armor, and even some skin intact. In fact, it is so well-preserved, some have dubbed it a “dinosaur mummy.”
A Giant Accident
The discovery of the dino-mummy was purely accidental. On an otherwise-average 2011 afternoon at Alberta’s Millennium Mine, heavy-equipment operator Shawn Funk was manning an excavator when he hit something hard. Funk was used to striking minerals or old marine fossils, but this was different.
Over 7,000 man-hours later, the discovery now lies in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. It’s an incredibly well-preserved armored herbivore called a nodosaur that lived 110 million years ago. A team carved through a 15,000-pound rock to dig out the dinosaur’s body, from its snout to its hips.
When the nodosaur was alive, it weighed approximately 3,000 lbs (1360 kg). It was 18 feet (5.5m) long and was outfitted with some serious prehistoric bling: along with bumpy, thorn-like armor, it had 20-inch-long (50 cm) spikes on either shoulder. While the nodosaur was thought to largely keep to itself in the wild, it could hold its own in battle.
Burial at Sea
So, why is this nodosaur so intact while with most other fossils paleontologists find are just a few teeth or bones? Scientists believe that after death, it was buried so quickly under the sea that minerals infused its skin and body parts to preserve it. Then, centuries upon centuries of rock and sediment piled up on top.
Several years after its discovery, there is still much to be learned from the nodosaur, but scientists are up for the project of a lifetime: The keratin layers that helped to form its armor are so well preserved that the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, Donald Henderson, called it “the Rosetta Stone of armor.”
In an interview with National Geographic, University of Bristol paleobiologist Jakob Vinther was shocked by the quality of the specimen. It was in such good shape, Vinther says it looks like it “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago… I’ve never seen anything like this.”