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We all know that dinosaur bones have lasted for tens of millions of years. Well, don't assume the same for dinosaur skin. Only in the rare case dinosaur skin gets fossilized so it retains some of its shape and looks something like a dried-out leather glove.
One such dinosaur was discovered in North Dakota, and now a decade later, scientists are revealing what that dinosaur is telling them. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the straight skinny on Dakota, the Dino Mummy.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: A high school student found the buried fossil in the Badlands of North Dakota. He called in an expert to help him dig it up. That was Phillip Manning, a paleontologist from the University of Manchester in England. When they dug deeper, Manning saw something that shocked him.
PHILLIP MANNING: It was absolutely covered in what looked to be mineralized skin.
JOYCE: With support from the National Geographic Society, Manning organized a dig that took several years. They gradually uncovered a hadrosaur, a 25-foot- long dinosaur known as the cow of the Cretaceous. A duck-billed lumbering plant-eater, they called it Dakota.
MANNING: This looked like it had depth and structure to the skin, and that's what got us really excited. Almost the nail clippings are still present. The tail is three-dimensional, intact. The skin is a like a cone of skin slipped over the skeleton. It's beautiful. The arm is just - it's like shaking hands with a dinosaur. The three-dimensional skin envelope runs all the way around from the hand up to its armpit. It's quite remarkable.
JOYCE: The circumstances for this remarkable preservation had to be just so. Manning says the animal died about 65 billion years ago and was quickly covered in water and silt, as well as chemicals from plants. This chemical soup was perfect for creating calcium carbonate, which permeated the skin and created a kind of cement envelope. The actual skin decomposed, but its shape and structure was frozen in time.
The surface of the mineralized skin has a geometric pattern, like the outside of a soccer ball. That's what the hadrosaur's skin would have look like in life, and Manning says even the inside of the skin is preserved.
MANNING: You slice through the skin, and you can see original cell boundaries, which have been locked in the calcium carbonate cement of this remarkable fossil. And that, for me, is an absolute gob-smacking moment when we look at that for the first time.
JOYCE: Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in England, Manning says they're hoping they might find a whiff of organic material that could have remained within the mineralized skin. In recent years, other scientists have claimed to recover actual blood vessels and even proteins from inside dinosaur bone, but it's been difficult to prove that these organic materials aren't just contamination from other animals or a bacteria.
Chances are getting better for finding traces of tissue, though. New techniques - many borrowed from medical and chemistry laboratories - are helping scientists tease out even the most minute biological markers from animals fossilized for millions of years.
Derek Briggs is a paleontologist at Yale University who specializes in looking for so-called soft tissue from long-extinct animals and plants.
DEREK BRIGGS: Our analytical and imagining facilities are becoming much more sophisticated at a very rapid rate, and that's yielding all sorts of exciting, new results about the chemistry and appearance of these kinds of animals.
JOYCE: Dakota hasn't yet revealed much that's new about dinosaur evolution, but Manning and his team believe this dinosaur's secrets are more than skin-deep. And already having the fossilized skin takes a lot of guess work out of recreating what dinosaurs really looked like.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
GREENE: You're probably now curious to see what fossilized dinosaur skin looks like, so you should go to npr.org.
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