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

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.

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Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists May Have Finally Figured Out Why We Have Eyebrows
A Neanderthal skull
A Neanderthal skull
Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images

If you look at a pictures of some of the earlier branches of humanity's family tree, like Neanderthals or Homo erectus, you might notice that Homo sapiens got off relatively lightly, eyebrow-wise. Most early hominins had thick, bony brow ridges rather than the smooth brows of modern humans. For years, researchers have been arguing over why those thick ridges existed—and why modern humans evolved tinier brows. A new study suggests that heavy brow ridges had social usefulness that was more important than their physiological function.

Previous research has suggested that thick brow ridges helped connect early hominins' eye sockets with their brain cavities, or protected the skull from the physical stress put on it by chewing jaws, or even helped early hominins take punches to the face.

The new study by University of York researchers, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, used a digital model of a fossil skull, thought to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, of an extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis that evolved sometime between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago in what is now Zambia. The researchers manipulated the model, changing the size of the brow ridge and seeing what happened when they applied different bite pressures. They found that the brow ridge was much bigger than it needed to be if its purpose was just to connect the eye sockets with the brain case, and that it didn't seem to protect the skull from the force of biting.

Instead, the researchers suggest that the brow ridge played a social role. Other primates have similar brow ridges that serve a social purpose rather than a mechanical one, like male mandrills, whose colorful, heavy-browed muzzles serve as dominance displays. Heavy brow ridges may have played a similar role in early human species.

As Homo sapiens evolved, more subtle communication may have taken precedence over the permanent social signal of a giant brow ridge. As foreheads became more vertical, eyebrows could move more freely and subtly, leading to important social signals in modern humans, like expressions of surprise or indignation.

An accompanying analysis in the same journal, by Spanish paleontologist Markus Bastir, cautions that the results of the new study are appealing, but should be taken with a grain of salt. The specimen used for the digital model was missing a mandible, and the researchers subbed in a mandible from a Neanderthal, a related species but still a distinct one from Homo heidelbergensis. This may have altered the analysis of the model and bite stresses. Still, the study provides "exciting prospects for future research," he writes.

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High-Speed Railway Project Uncovers a Prehistoric Coastline Near London
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iStock

UK engineers have discovered evidence of a prehistoric coastline just outside London while preparing for a new high-speed railway, The Guardian reports.

The UK government has been analyzing the ground at the proposed locations for the railway, HS2, since 2015. Engineers are using radar, taking core samples, and digging pits before Phase 1 of construction. While evaluating the site of a future tunnel, geologists found signs that the site in the West London area of Ruislip was once a coastal marsh. Almost 110 feet under the ground, they discovered black clay they believe was formed from wooded swampland on the coast of a subtropical sea.

soil specimens from 56 million years ago
HS2

The unusually well-preserved layer of clay, which features traces of vegetation, dates back to around 56 million years ago, when Great Britain was partially covered by a warm sea. Less than 200 feet away from where the black clay was discovered, the layer of earth at the same depth is made of sand and gravel, likely deposited by the sea.

"Although ground investigations regularly take place across the country, it's really exciting and very unusual to come across a material that no one has ever seen before," geological expert Jacqueline Skipper said in a press release from HS2. "The 'Ruislip Bed' discovery is particularly fascinating, as it is a window into our geological history." While researchers knew that much of England was underwater during this period, this evidence helps them pinpoint exactly where that sea began.

[h/t The Guardian]

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