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Discovering Dinosaurs

Bureau of Land Management
Environmental Education Electronic Field Trip














Excavation Journal

May 16, 2001: Major Discovery Made Today! Rare Skin Fossil Found With Hadrosaur Bones


Dr. Alan Titus called in exciting "headline" news today. Skin was

Dr. Barry Albright, paleontologist with the Museum of Northern Arizona, discovered these rare dinosaur skin fossils in the rock.

found preserved with the hadrosaur specimen. This is a VERY rare event. Literally hundreds of dinosaur fossils have been excavated from Utah and yet, before this discovery, skin impressions had been documented only once in the entire state, and perhaps only two dozen such specimens have ever been found, anywhere.

Once analyzed, these soft tissue fossils could provide important clues to the mystery of what these animals really looked like--a significant addition to the growing body of knowledge about hadrosaurs.

Whereas dinosaur bone fossils contain real preserved bone, skin fossils are actually preserved molds and casts of the soft tissue of the skin. The texture of this soft tissue is believed to be somewhat like lizard scales or a fingernail. The skin specimens found looked at first like thumb prints, or beads. Being trained to analyze such things, Dr. Barry Albright, who first discovered the patches, immediately recognized them as skin impressions.

Dr. Titus explained that in order for the skin to be preserved, the animal must have been buried very rapidly in the stream channel while its meat and skin were still on the bones. He said that carbonized plant remains found with the fossil indicate that the oxygen levels in the sediments that surrounded the dead animal were low. This prevents bacteria from eating the skin after it is buried. The combination of these two things happening at once is a rare event.

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The team found two patches, a 4 inch square and an 8 inch square. But Dr. Titus speculates that there may be more. Now the team, consisting of Dr. Barry Albright and Dr. Dave Gillette of the Museum of Northern Arizona, and Merle Graffan, will meticulously look for signs of more.

How did they find these? It was a a lucky break, says Titus. As they were taking the second block out, Dr. Albright noticed the impressions in the break in the rock surrounding the bones. This means that, back in the lab, when the bones are further separated from the rock, they could potentially find more preserved skin impressions close to the bone.

But until then, the crew will keep their eyes open for any more signs of skin fossils. Every rock that is split will be carefully analyzed for signs of soft tissue fossil. This may slow down the excavation a little, but as Dr. Titus explains, they already were being very meticulous in their work. That's what they are trained to do. And in this case, it certainly paid off!


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