One hot March afternoon in 2011, Shawn Funk, a miner working his excavator down the vastness of the Millennium Mines in Alberta, Canada, hit something that was much harder than the surrounding rock he was digging through. Closer inspection revealed a walnut coloured rock-like structure displaying a bizarre pattern- row after row of sandy brown disks, each ringed in gunmetal grey stone.
Funk instantly realized that what lay before his eyes was something truly special. The ‘rock’ was actually a 2,500-pound dinosaur fossil, preserved from the snout to the hips, which Funk had inadvertently stumbled upon. The fossil was painstakingly shipped to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta and technicians set to work on scraping the extraneous rock from the fossilized remains.
Once the rock covering the fossils was scraped away, the exquisitely well-preserved nature of the dinosaur astounded the palaeontologists working on it.
“Normally when we find dinosaur fossils we just have a skeleton, the bones. And we have to use our imaginations to reconstruct what they look like,” said Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the museum.
“In this case, we don’t just have a skeleton,” he says. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”
The degree of preservation that the creature displays defies words. According to paleobiologist Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol, one of the experts working on the find, the fossil is so pristine that it “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he added.
Researchers believe that the nodosaur was swept up into a flooded river and carried away into the deep sea, where it was rapidly buried under heaps of sediment and under-sea minerals. Its deep sea burial and consequently, a rapid speed of fossilization, accounted for its remarkable degree of preservation.
Usually armoured dinosaurs’ trademark plates scatter early in decay. However, in this specimen, not only the plates, but even the scales in between the plates were found intact. Amazingly, the plates even displayed remains of the keratin sheath covering them. A grey patina of skin covered parts of the skull, offering a never-before chance to researchers to study dinosaur skin in such exquisite detail.
For palaeontologists, finding a dinosaur fossil with this level of preservation is nothing short of winning the lottery.
The researchers identified the fossil as that of a 3000 pound ‘nodosaur’, an armoured herbivorous dinosaur that walked Earth around 110 million years ago, and have hailed it as “the best preserved armoured dinosaur ever found”!
Apart from its armour of bony plates, called osteoderms, dotting the animal’s body, the nodosaur also sported two 20-inch-long spikes jutting out of its shoulders, mostly to scare away predators looking to make the herbivore their meal for the day.
7000 hours of meticulous work and six years later, the dinosaur fossil has been thrown open for public viewing at the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology, Alberta, in May this year, where it offers a tantalizing view into the ancient past to audiences lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it.