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

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

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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.

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María Ríos et al / PLOS One
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Animals
Scientists Unearth a Giraffe Ancestor That Had Four Horns Instead of Two
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María Ríos et al / PLOS One

The recently uncovered fossil of an early giraffe ancestor exhibits some noticeable differences from its modern giraffe descendants. It's several feet shorter, roamed Europe instead of Africa, and sports four horns on its head instead of two. As The New York Times reports, the discovery, outlined in a recent study in the journal PLOS One, sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the long-necked mammals.

The fossil belongs to a newly discovered species of extinct giraffe dubbed Decennatherium rex. It was excavated near Madrid, Spain along with the remains of three other specimens of the same animal, but the other fossils don't compare to the near-complete condition of the first. The creatures lived in the area 9 million years ago, moving the timeline of giraffids' presence in Europe further back than experts previously thought.

The ancient species stood 9 feet tall, making it shorter than today's giraffes. While D. rex lacked the modern giraffe's distinctive towering neck, paleontologists were able to classify it as a member of the same family by looking for its double-lobed canine teeth and the bony protrusions on its head called ossicones. Giraffes and okapis are the only remaining members of their family (though the giraffes we think of as one species may actually consist of four), and they both have one set of two ossicones that rise straight from the top of the skull.

Artist rendering of giraffe relative.

In addition to the two small horns at the front of its head, D. rex also appears to have had a second set. This feature differed in females and males: In the female D. rex, ossicones grew to be about 2 inches, while in males their second set could reach up to 16 inches. Though they varied in size, the fact that ossicones appeared in both sexes suggests that they didn't just evolve as a way for males to compete for mates.


The details of giraffe evolution, like how the species developed its elongated neck, are mysteries scientists are just starting to unravel. This most recent discovery adds another important link in the long history of the Giraffidae family.

[h/t The New York Times]

All images courtesy of María Ríos et al. in PLOS One

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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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science
Feathers, Fighting, and Feet: A Brief History of Dinosaur Art
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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the first-known works of dinosaur art was The country of the Iguanodon, an 1837 watercolor by John Martin. It depicts the ancient reptiles as giant iguanas, thrashing and fighting near a stone quarry—a far cry from today's sophisticated 3D renderings.

By watching the PBS Eons video below, you can learn how our image of dinosaurs has changed over the centuries, thanks to artworks based on new scientific discoveries and fossil findings. Find out why artists decided to give the prehistoric creatures either feathers or scales, make them either active or sluggish, present them as walking on two or four feet, and to imagine tails that either dragged or lifted, among other features.

Keep in mind, however, that both emerging technologies and new findings are constantly changing the way scientists view dinosaurs. A new species, on average, is named every two weeks—and this research will likely keep artists busy (and constantly revising their work) for years to come.

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