armored dinosaur
August 4, 2017

Massive armored dinosaur relied on camouflage for safety

A newly-identified species of dinosaur used camouflage to hide from its carnivorous predators, despite the fact that it weighed more than 2,800 pounds (1,300 kg), had a heavily armored body and was essentially the “dinosaur equivalent of a tank,” researchers have discovered.

The creature in question is the Borealopelta markmitchelli, and Royal Tyrrell Museum scientist Caleb Brown and his colleagues analyzed an 110-million-year-old, 18-foot long specimen that is currently on display at the Alberta, Canada after being found in a nearby oil sand mine.

Based on their analysis of the creature’s skin Brown’s team determined that the species exhibited a form of camouflage known as countershading, meaning that its pigmentation was darker on the upper side of its body and lighter on the underside. As they wrote in this week’s issue of Current Biology, this suggests that the behemoth was hunted by even larger predators.

Yes, despite the size of the Borealopelta, its armor was apparently insufficient to protect it from some of the potential threats it face. As Brown explained in a press release, “Strong predation on a massive, heavily-armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been.”

Researchers were stunned by the fossils’ pristine condition

According to BBC News and New Scientist, the specimen was discovered by accident in 2011 by workers at an oil sand mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta. In addition to the revelation that it depended on camouflage for safety, the find was significant because of its pristine condition.

The creature was one of just a handful of dinosaurs to have been preserved in 3D, and the group found a complete head, neck and right forelimb along with a partial left forelimb and torso, said New Scientist. It took more than 7,000 hours of painstaking work to safely retrieve the fossils.

“Normally when we find a dinosaur we find bits and pieces of skeletons and occasionally soft issue,” Brown told the website. “In this case, we have all the skin preserved in the front half of body – so it actually looks like it looked back in the Cretaceous.”

“The result is that... you don't need to use much imagination to reconstruct it; if you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping,” he continued in a statement. “It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved dinosaur specimens – the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs.”

Thanks to the condition of the dinosaur, Brown and his colleagues were able to document the pattern and shape of its scales, spikes and armor. Furthermore, they were able to analyze organic chemical compounds in its scales to determine that it had a reddish-brown pigmentation pattern with countershading throughout its body. While countershading is not uncommon, most modern creatures that possess the trait are far smaller than Borealopelta, the authors noted.

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Image credit: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palentology