Mummified Canadian Dinosaur

By Amy R. Babcock

Making the rounds again after nearly two years is the story of the mummified dinosaur found accidentally by miners in Canada.

Back in 2011, on the afternoon of March 1st, heavy equipment operator, Shawn Funk was carving into the Millennium Mine through sands laced with bitumen. Bitumen are the remains of marine plants and animals that died 110 million years ago. Over the 12 years he’d done this kind of work, he’d stumbled upon the occasional fossilized piece of wood, but never happened across the remains of an actual animal. But this day would prove to turn out differently.

Within minutes of noticing strange material being pulled up by his efforts, he notified his supervisor, Mike Gratton. Both men began examining the walnut brown rocks, wondering if these were a strange type of fossilized wood, or something else. As they turned over one of the pieces, they noticed row after row of sandy brown disks, each ringed in grey stone.

“Right away, Mike was like, ‘We gotta get this checked out,’” Funk said in an interview later that same year. “It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before.”

Over the course of the next 6 years, Royal Tyrrell Museum technician, Mark Mitchell spent roughly 7,000 man-hours unearthing the rest of this incredible find. Once his excavation was complete, the specimen was named after him: Borealopelta markmitchelli (Northern shield of Mark Mitchell). Naturally, Mitchell was overjoyed by this decision.

“I was very excited…I put my hands up in the air and cheered.”

The remarkable fossil ended up being a newfound species of Nodosaur.  Unlike its Ankylosaur cousin, the Nodosaur lacks spikes at the end of its tail. Still, like all specimens of this genus, they wielded thorny armour in order to deter predators. Plodding across the land during the Cretaceous period (110-112 million years ago), this 18ft long creature weighed in at a sturdy 3,000lbs. Think of it as a giant, grumpy, rhinoceros. Rather than a single horn on its nose, however, the Nodosaur was armed with two 20in long spikes that jut out from its shoulders.

When National Geographic writer, Michael Greshko went to pay a visit to the museum to learn more, he reported that the fossil “resembled grey blocks like a 9ft long sculpture of a dinosaur.  With a mosaic of armour coating its neck and back, and grey circles outlining individual scales.”   

But scales aren’t all scientists found. Some of its guts are intact, which is unprecedented. It’s so astonishing that Caleb Brown, researcher at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, told National Geographic, “We don’t just have a skeleton, we have a dinosaur as it would have been.”

Still, the fossil has provided new insights into the structure of exoskeletal armour. Most fossils of these types of dinosaurs require a lot of guesswork. Osteoderms (bony plates) usually scatter early in the decomposition process. However, in this specimen of Nodosaur, not only did the osteoderms preserve in place, but so did traces of the scales in between. In fact, scale sheaths made of keratin still coat many of the osteoderms, which allow palaeontologists to see precisely how the sheaths affected the shape and size of the armour.

“I’ve been calling this one the Rosetta stone for armour,” Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum told National Geographic.

But how did such a finely preserved fossil come to be in the first place?

Western Canada, where this dinosaur once lived, was once much different than the cold, windy plains we see today. Back in the Cretaceous period, this area was warm and humid, much like South Florida. During his time, the Nodosaur would have seen rising waters carving an inland seaway. But now, those ancient seabeds have been long buried under forests and fields. Scientists believe it was a rapid undersea burial that allowed for the pristine preservation of this particular specimen.

It’s thought that this guy got caught up in a flood that caused him to drown, likely belly-up. As gasses from bacteria infiltrated his abdomen, his body was kept afloat and swept out to sea until his bloated corpse burst. When this happened his remains likely sunk to the bottom of the seabed where mud and silt kicked up from the bottom engulphed the body, preserving it through time. This allowed for the amazing level of fossilization for palaeontological study.

In the world of palaeontology, there are no guarantees of finding great specimens, much less one of this calibre. Typically, only bones and teeth are preserved, and on occasion some soft tissue may be replaced by minerals. Finding one with such a true-to-life shape is even more rare. Feathered dinosaurs found in China were found flattened by the burial process, and mummified duck-billed dinosaurs found in North America were withered and sun-dried. Yet, this Nodosaur was so well preserved that looks like it could have been walking around just a few weeks before it was found.

Paleobiologist, Jakob Vinther, an expert on animal coloration from UK’s University of Bristol, who has studied some of the world’s best-preserved fossils, was astounded after only 4 days of working on this find.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told National Geographic.

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