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Henry Fairfield Osborn via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

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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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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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