"Dinosaur Mummy" Has Skin Like Birds' and Crocodiles'

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
June 30, 2009

There's no evidence of goosebumps just yet, but a remarkably preserved dinosaur reveals that the prehistoric reptile had skin like that of birds and crocodiles, a new study says.

"This is the closest you're going to get to patting the animal," said excavation leader Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Britain's University of Manchester.

Advanced imaging and chemical techniques revealed that the 66-million-year-old "mummified" duckbilled dinosaur had two layers of skin, as do modern vertebrates, including humans.

Such a discovery was possible because the dinosaur's skin fossilized before bacteria had a chance to eat up the tissue.

It is "absolutely amazing to be able to identify organic molecules from soft tissue that belonged to a beast that died over 66 million years ago," said Manning, whose work with the fossil was partially funded by the National Geographic Expeditions Council. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"It's certainly in my top ten all-time fossils."

World-Class Dino

Tyler Lyson, a teenager at the time, discovered Dakota, as the fossil was later dubbed, in 1999 on his family's North Dakota property. (See photos of the "mummified" dinosaur.)

No one knows how the hippo-size animal died.

But scientists do know that the body was probably buried rapidly. The resulting low-oxygen environment and the apparent lack of disturbance to the site made Dakota a "world-class dinosaur" fossil, according to the new study, published July 1 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Building Blocks

With electron microscopes and x-rays, Manning discovered that Dakota had cell-like structures indicative of two-ply skin: a thin surface layer plus an underlying layer of dense connective tissues.

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