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Henry Fairfield Osborn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Henry Fairfield Osborn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Scientists Find Blood Cells in 75-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Bones

Henry Fairfield Osborn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Henry Fairfield Osborn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
An early 20th-century illustration of a Struthiomimus altus, a theropodspecies known from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. Scientists have found evidence of soft tissue in the claw of a 75-million-year-old theropod like this one.

For Dinosaur Provincial Park, one of the richest, best-preserved fossil sites in the world, the bones are nothing special. They were found a century ago on the surface in a poorly preserved state. They spent decades in museum storage, ignored.

But these humble bones from Alberta, Canada, may hold something remarkable: 75-million-year-old soft tissue. That's what researchers from Imperial College London reported on June 9 in Nature Communications. “We still need to do more research to confirm what it is that we are imaging in these dinosaur bone fragments, but the ancient tissue structures we have analyzed have some similarities to red blood cells and collagen fibers," says study co-author Sergio Bertazzo. "If we can confirm that our initial observations are correct, then this could yield fresh insights into how these creatures once lived and evolved.”

Using a scanning electron microscope, a focused ion beam, and a transmission electron microscope, the team looked deep into the interiors of eight bone fragments, among them a claw from a theropod dinosaur. In six of the fragments they found evidence of soft tissue, including possible fibers and amino acids from collagen (a protein mostly found in tendons, ligaments, and skin) and erythrocytes, or red blood cells. The red blood cells show a surprising similarity to modern emu blood, they report.

Density-dependent color scanning electron micrographs of an ungual claw of an indeterminate theropod dinosaur and ribs from an indeterminate dinosaur. Researchers found (a) amorphous carbon-rich material (red) surrounded by dense material (green); (b) red blood cell–like structures composed of carbon; and (d) fibrous structures. Image credit: Sergio Bertazzo

The findings are notable because when soft tissue has been discovered—very rarely—in the past, it has almost invariably been found in pristinely preserved fossils. But a decade ago, the discovery of soft tissues in a Tyrannosaurus rex astonished paleontologists by revealing soft tissue preservation where nobody thought it possible, says David Evans, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum who has worked extensively at Dinosaur Provincial Park. "These findings were controversial, were generally thought to be restricted to special, spectacular preservational conditions, and very rare," he says.

This recent analysis bolsters those findings and suggests we may be able to mine soft tissue from even poorly preserved bones. "It has huge potential for future research," Evans says. "It shows that preservation of soft tissues like blood cells and collagen might be much more common in dinosaur bones that we have previously assumed—we just need to look."

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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