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Predators may have helped turn the dinosaur into a mummy

Galadriel Watson

THE WASHINGTON POST – You probably know about Egyptian mummies, but did you know that dinosaurs could become mummies, too?

This happens when skin is fossilised along with the bones. Before, scientists thought this could occur only if the dinosaur’s body was buried quickly since this kept it safe from meat eaters and decomposition.

Recently, though, a dinosaur mummy known as Dakota challenged this idea.

About 67 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period, Dakota died in what we now call North Dakota.

An Edmontosaurus, Dakota was a type of hadrosaur (a duck-billed dinosaur), which were common back then. What makes Dakota special, though, is that its fossil included skin and that this skin had bite marks on it.

A relative of today’s crocodile seems to be at least one of the culprits, either killing the dinosaur or having a scavenging snack. But how did Dakota become mummified?

An artist’s drawing of what Edmontosaurus would have looked like when it lived. PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE

“If you have a meat eater that’s maybe not big enough to eat the whole animal, one of the things they might do is get through the skin and then start eating what’s on the inside,” said a palaeontologist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Stephanie Drumheller-Horton.

In addition to removing the internal organs, this process gives “all of the gunk – all of the gases and liquids and all of that stuff – a way to escape. You’ve basically hollowed out the remains, and then the skin that’s left behind can dry out much more easily”.

Dakota’s body, with remaining skin, later became buried and eventually fossilised.

Drumheller-Horton credits her team members for this discovery, whose job it is to “prepare” the fossil – meaning they remove the rock that surrounds it to reveal the dinosaur beneath.

“They were the first ones who found these patterns of damage and brought them to our attention.”

Another pattern they have revealed is that of Dakota’s skin itself. “It’s a very bumpy-looking texture,” Drumheller-Horton said, and includes “fun parts of the body where there are some patterns to the scales”. While its thickness might have protected the animal from some predators, “it wasn’t going to slow down a T-Rex”.

In addition to learning more about hadrosaurs, scientists now realise that “there are multiple ways to make a mummy”.

Three possible dino or human mummifying methods:

Bury it rapidly

This keeps bodies safe from the elements such as weather and wildlife. For example, “Leonardo” is a duck-billed dinosaur mummy that has the contents of its stomach preserved.

Hollow it out and dry it

Just as Dakota had its internal organs removed, “in Egyptian mummies, that was done intentionally, and the body was treated in a way to help it dry”, Drumheller-Horton said.

Sink it in a body of water that lacks oxygen deep down

“Decomposition is going to be slowed,” Drumheller-Horton said, “because those microbes that help the process along need oxygen”. For example, “bog bodies” found in Denmark and Ireland have been preserved for centuries, and an extremely well-preserved nodosaur mummy was found about a decade ago in Canada.


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