Using tiny brushes and chisels, workers picking at a big greenish-black rock in the basement of North Dakota's state museum are meticulously uncovering something amazing: a nearly complete dinosaur, skin and all.
Unlike almost every other dinosaur fossil ever found, the Edmontosaurus named Dakota—a duckbilled dinosaur found in southwestern North Dakota in 1999 and announced to the public last December (see story)—is covered by fossilized skin that is hard as iron.
It's among just a few mummified dinosaurs in the world, say the researchers who are slowly freeing it from a 65-million-year-old rock tomb.
"This is the closest many people will ever get to seeing what large parts of a dinosaur actually looked like, in the flesh," said Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Manchester University in England, a member of the international team researching Dakota and a National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee.
"This is not the usual disjointed sentence or fragment of a word that the fossil records offer up as evidence of past life," Manning said. "This is a full chapter."
"One of the Best" Dino Mummies
Animal tissue typically decomposes quickly after death. Researchers say Dakota must have been buried rapidly and in just the right environment for the skin to be preserved.
"The process of decay was overtaken by that of fossilization, preserving many of the soft-tissue structures," Manning said.
Tyler Lyson, a 25-year-old doctoral paleontology student at Yale University, discovered the dinosaur on his uncle's ranch in the Badlands in 1999. Weeks after he started to unearth the fossil in 2004, he knew he had found something special.
"Usually all we have is bones," Lyson said in a telephone interview. "In this special case, we're not just after the bones; we're after the whole carcass."