March 19, 2008

“˜Near Perfect’ Dinosaur Found in North Dakota

Researchers at North Dakota's state museum are scrupulously chipping away at a giant greenish-black 65-million-year-old rock, using tiny brushes and chisels to uncover a nearly complete dinosaur fossil, with skin and all. 

Named Dakota, the fossil is unlike almost any other ever found, and was unearthed in 2004 in southwestern North Dakota. The Edmontosaurus is covered by fossilized skin that is hard as a rock, and among only a few mummified dinosaurs ever discovered.

"This is the closest many people will ever get to seeing what large parts of a dinosaur actually looked like, in the flesh," said paleontologist Phillip Manning, of Manchester University in England, a member of the international team researching Dakota.

"This is not the usual disjointed sentence or fragment of a word that the fossil records offer up as evidence of past life. This is a full chapter," he told the Associated Press.

Typically, animal tissue decomposes shortly after death. But researchers said Dakota must have been swiftly buried under just the right circumstances for the texture of the skin to be preserved.

"The process of decay was overtaken by that of fossilization, preserving many of the soft-tissue structures," Manning said.

The dinosaur was discovered by 25-year-old Tyler Lyson, a doctoral paleontology student at Yale University, on his uncle's ranch in the Badlands in 1999.  Just weeks after he began unearthing the fossil in 2004, he knew he had found something special.

"Usually all we have is bones," Lyson said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "In this special case, we're not just after the bones; we're after the whole carcass."

Using the world's largest CT scanner, operated by the Boeing Co. and used to examine space shuttle parts, the researchers got a better look at the contents encased in the ragged sandstone mass.

According to Stephen Begin, a Michigan consultant on the project, Dakota is only the fifth dinosaur mummy ever found that is "of any significance."

"It may turn out to be one of the best mummies, because of the quality of the skin that we're finding and the extent of the skin that's on the specimen," he said.

Begin said although several dinosaurs with fossilized skin have been unearthed around the world, only a handful had enough skin to be of use for research and education, and in most of the previous fossils the skin was considered to be of lesser significance. "The goal was to get bones to put on display," he said.

Researchers moved Dakota to the museum early last month. John Hoganson, a paleontologist at the North Dakota Geological Survey, said it would take a year or move to completely uncover it.

Amy Sakariassen, part of the team working on the project, joined Begin in chipping away at the rock. At one point, she was toiling away with a brush whose bristles had been ground down to practically nothing.

"It really is wonderful to work on it," Sakariassen said. "Nobody's seen that particular scale in 67 million years. It's quite thrilling."

Manning said his involvement has called for 18-hour days and seven-day weeks and "more work than I could have ever imagined. But I would not change a single second of the past few years."

Hoganson said the fossil's main part weights nearly 5 tons, and consists of two parts.

"The skeleton itself is kind of curled up," he said. "The actual length would be about 30 feet, from about the tip of its tail to the tip of its nose."

The fossil has inspired both a children's book and an adult book, as well as National Geographic television programs. The research is being funded in large part by the National Geographic Society.

"We are looking forward to seeing what emerges from the huge dinosaur body block now housed in North Dakota," said John Francis, a society vice president.

Many prehistoric fossils have been found in the western North Dakota Badlands, where the weather has heavily eroded the terrain over time. Hoganson believes other treasures like Dakota are likely waiting to be unearthed.

"It's one of the few places in the world where you can actually see the boundary line where the dinosaurs became extinct, the time boundary," he said. "In the Badlands, this layer is exposed in certain places."

Lyson eventually hopes to send Dakota on a worldwide tour before returning it back to his hometown of Marmarth, where he is creating a museum. Until then, the North Dakota Heritage Center on the state Capitol grounds plans to display part of Dakota this summer.


On the Net:

Manchester University

North Dakota Heritage Center