for National Geographic News
Leonardo, a mummified, 77-million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur was only about three or four years old when he died, but he's proving to be a bonanza for paleontologists today.
His fossilized skeleton is covered in soft tissueskin, scales, muscle, foot padsand even his last meal is in his stomach. The actual tissue has decayed over the millennia, and has been replaced by minerals. What's left for scientists to study is a fossil of a dinosaur mummy.
"For paleontologists, if you can find one complete specimen in a lifetime, you've hit the jackpot," said Nate Murphy, curator of paleontology at the Phillips County Museum, Montana, where Leonardo makes his home. "To find one with so much external detail available, it's like going from a horse and buggy to a steam combustion engine. It will advance our science a quantum leap."
Leonardo is one of the most complete brachylophosaurus dinosaur fossils uncovered to date, and the first sub-adult. He is also only the fourth dinosaur fossil in the world to be classified as a "mummy" because of the soft tissue that is preserved.
The other three mummies were uncovered in the early 20th century, when excavation and preservation techniques were not as advanced as they are today.
"Paleontologists back then didn't have the techniques we have today to coax out the secrets these fossils are holding," said Murphy. "This specimen gives us a chance to apply modern scientific techniques to answer old questions."
The mummified fossil was named Leonardo because graffiti near its burial site in northern Montana read "Leonard Webb and Geneva Jordan, 1917." Leonardo made his debut to the scientific community today at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, taking place October 9-12, in Norman, Oklahoma.
Remarkable State of Preservation
When he died, Leonardo was a 22-foot-long (seven meters) teenager, weighing between 1.5 to 2 tons. He sported polygonal, five-sided scales that ranged from the size of a BB (airgun pellet) to the size of a dime, and soft-tissue structures on his back suggest that he had a little sail frill running up it.
Scales and tissue parts have been found on less than one-tenth of one percent of all dinosaurs excavated. Leonardo's fossilized skeleton is about 90 percent covered in soft tissue, including skin, muscle, nail material, and a beak.
Skin impressions have been found on the underside of the skull and all along the neck, ribcage, legs, and left arm.
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