The Exquisitely Preserved ‘Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs’ Has Been Named

Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada
Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada

Experts say the spectacularly well-preserved nodosaur now on display at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum (RTM) represents a new species—a hulking, armored beast that was not too proud to hide when predators were on the prowl. The research team described this "dinosaur equivalent of a tank" in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

The nodosaur's massive remains were uncovered by miners in Alberta in 2011 in what was a seabed about 110 million years ago, when the creature died. The enormous block of stone and fossil was transferred to the museum, where technician Mark Mitchell set about freeing the specimen from its final resting place.

A researcher with a small pick prepares a dinosaur specimen.

The task took Mitchell more than five years and 7000 hours. Every one of them was worth it: The results are breathtaking.

Closeup of a nodosaur fossil.

"This nodosaur is truly remarkable in that it is completely covered in preserved scaly skin, yet is also preserved in three dimensions, retaining the original shape of the animal. The result is that the animal looks almost the same today as it did back in the Early Cretaceous," museum scientist Caleb Brown said in a statement. "If you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping. ... It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens—the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

While Mitchell chipped away at the stone tomb, Brown and his colleagues began trying to identify the animal inside. They knew it was a member of the stocky, heavily armored nodosaur family, but they couldn't figure out which one.

Eventually they realized why—it's not a species or genus anyone has ever seen before. Even so, the incredible quality of the museum's specimen made it possible for them to reconstruct what it might have looked like in life.

Chemical analysis of the nodosaur's scales and horn sheaths indicated the presence of a reddish-gold pigment called pheomelanin. In people, pheomelanin is what gives redheads their coppery locks and lends our lips and nipples their pinkish color. In nodosaurs, it probably turned them orange.

Some parts of them, at least. The researchers realized that their specimen, a herbivore, most likely had a pale belly, like a squirrel, and darker coloration on its back. This color patterning is called countershading. It's used to help animals blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.

That's right: Apparently the dinosaur's massive punk spikes and tough hide were not enough to keep it safe. It needed camouflage, too.

"Strong predation on a massive, heavily armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been," Brown said.

The team named their new species Borealopelta markmitchelli. The genus name is a combination of "borealis" (Latin for "northern") and "pelta" (Greek for "shield'"). The species name is a tribute to Mitchell, the scientists write, for his "patient and skilled" revealing of their pride and joy.

All images courtesy of the Royal Tyrell Museum.

Sue the T. Rex Will Return to Chicago's Field Museum in December

Tim Boyle, Newsmakers
Tim Boyle, Newsmakers

Sue, the most complete T. rex fossil ever discovered, is getting new digs. The famous dinosaur was moved from its longtime home in the Field Museum's main hall in February while the museum constructed a new exhibition space, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Sue will soon be on view again.

Starting December 21, you’ll be able to see Sue in a new gallery that's part of the Chicago institution’s "Evolving Planet" exhibition. The new 5100-square-foot hall is designed to bring visitors into Sue’s world with interactive displays and cutting-edge animations.

While Sue’s former home in the museum’s grand entrance hall provided visitors with an eye-catching view, the space just didn’t do the dino justice. “When Sue was in Stanley Field Hall, a lot of people would say, ‘Aw, Sue’s smaller than I thought,’” Field Museum President Richard Lariviere explained in a press release. The new hall does a better job of showcasing just how imposing the specimen is, and how terrifying they would have been to encounter when alive. (Sue was named after explorer Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the fossil, but it’s unclear whether the dinosaur was male or female. For the sake of accuracy and inclusivity, the museum refers to the specimen as “they.”)

An updated version of Sue the T. rex
Field Museum

The new animations in the exhibition will explore how Sue would have interacted with other dinosaurs, what the landscape of their territory would have looked like, and more. The exhibition will also tell the story of Sue’s discovery and discuss all the new information scientists have learned about T. rex since Sue first came to the museum.

Sue’s surroundings aren’t the only thing that’s different. The specimen itself has gotten an upgrade, too. When Sue was first uncovered in the 1990s, scientists weren’t exactly sure what to do with some of their bones. We now know that these bones—called the gastralia—formed a rib-like unit across the dinosaur’s belly and helped support the respiratory system (similar to how we use our diaphragms). In addition to Sue's now-bulging belly, Field Museum scientists have made a few other tweaks so that the specimen more accurately reflects current understanding of dinosaur physiology. Instead of skulking, the repositioned Sue will be walking. Their arms will come down a bit, and their wishbone will be adjusted slightly.

“This is the biggest, scariest, and most impressive Sue’s ever looked,” Lavriviere said.

[h/t Chicago Tribune]

How Fossil Fuel Use Is Making Carbon Dating Less Accurate

iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga
iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga

The scientific process of carbon dating has been used to determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, seeds found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and many other archaeological finds under 60,000 years old. However, as SciShow points out in a recent episode, the excessive use of fossil fuels is making that method less reliable.

Carbon dating, also called radiocarbon or C-14 dating, involves analyzing the ratio of two isotopes of carbon: C-14 (a radioactive form of carbon that decays over time) and C-12 (a more stable form). By analyzing that ratio in a given object compared to a living organism, archaeologists, paleontologists, and other scientists can get a pretty clear idea of how old that first object is. However, as more and more fossil fuels are burned, more carbon dioxide is released into the environment. In turn, this releases more of another isotope, called C-12, which changes the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere and skews the carbon dating analysis. This phenomenon is called the Suess effect, and it’s been well-documented since the ‘70s. SciShow notes that the atmospheric carbon ratio has changed in the past, but it wasn’t anything drastic.

A recent study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the concept. Writing in The Conversation, the study authors suggest that volcanoes “can lie about their age." Ancient volcanic eruptions can be dated by comparing the “wiggly trace” of C-14 found in trees killed in the eruption to the reference "wiggle" of C-14 in the atmosphere. (This process is actually called wiggle-match dating.) But this method “is not valid if carbon dioxide gas from the volcano is affecting a tree’s version of the wiggle,” researchers write.

According to another paper cited by SciShow, we're adding so much C-12 to the atmosphere at the current rate of fossil fuel usage that by 2050 brand-new materials will seem like they're 1000 years old. Some scientists have suggested that levels of C-13 (a more stable isotope) be taken into account while doing carbon dating, but that’s only a stopgap measure. The real challenge will be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more on how radiocarbon dating is becoming less predictable, check out SciShow’s video below.

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