Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science [Secure]
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by Phillip Manning
Category: Technology/Science/General Nonfiction
Many of us have seen dinosaur bones and skeletons, maybe even dinosaur eggs…but what did those fearsome animals really look like in the flesh? Soft--tissue fossils give tantalizing clues about the appearance and physiology of the ancient animals. In this exciting book, paleontologist Phillip Manning presents the most astonishing dinosaur fossil excavations of the past 100 years—including the recent discovery of a remarkably intact dinosaur mummy in the Badlands of North Dakota.
Bone structure is just the beginning of our knowledge today, thanks to amazing digs like these. Drawing on new breakthroughs and cutting--edge techniques of analysis, Dr. Manning takes us on a thrilling, globe--spanning tour of dinosaur mummy finds—from the first such excavation in 1908 to a baby dinosaur unearthed in 1980, from a dino with a heart in South Dakota to titanosaur embryos in Argentina. And he discusses his own groundbreaking analysis of “Dakota,“ discovered by Tyler Lyson.
Using state--of--the--art technology to scan and analyse this remarkable discovery, National Geographic and Dr. Manning create an incredibly lifelike portrait of Dakota. The knowledge to be gained from this exceedingly rare find, and those that came before it, will intrigue dinosaur--loving readers of all ages.
eBook Publisher: Random House, Inc.,
Filament eBookStore Release Date: January 2008
Available eBook Formats [Secure - What's this?]: OEBFF Format (IMP) [767 KB]
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DEATH OF A DINOSAUR
"One hundred percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased."
—C. S. Lewis
OMINOUS STORM CLOUDS built over the shores of the coastal floodplain behind them. Sweltering moisture-laden air blew through the endless march of dinosaurs. It made the elder members of the herd uneasy, increasing the urgency of the herd's pace. The floodplain had the potential to become treacherous if the rains came early.
The vast herd of hadrosaurs had trodden the same trails for millennia, leaving millions of tracks along the paths of migration. Each step brought them closer to the relative safety of the higher plateau and added security of numbers at the breeding grounds. The Tyrannosaurus rex that were continually shadowing the herd had already picked off numerous stragglers over the past few weeks. The herd was vulnerable out in the open, but their sheer numbers worked in their favor. They outnumbered the predators two hundred to one, an intimidating prospect even for the boldest predator. Natural selection was ensuring that only the fittest animals would make it through to the breeding grounds. The hadrosaurs tried hard to remain a tight herd, operating as a cooperative deterrent. However, a severe storm on the plain could cause the lowland rivers to swell. The entire herd could be wiped out by a flood.
While adult hadrosaurs waded through the many water-courses that crisscrossed the vast floodplain with ease, younger animals struggled with the currents and the thrashing bodies of larger, stronger members of the herd. As they crossed each stream, a cautious watch was kept for the crocodiles that lay in wait, still beneath the waters of major crossing points. The crocodiles ate their fill twice a year from the migration of the great herds. While T. rex relied upon speed and sheer power, the crocodiles were the ultimate stealth predators, ready to explode from the waters and drag their prey to a watery grave.
The herd reached the main river course, which each year offered a subtly different challenge due to its meandering path through the plain. The herd began to back up on the banks of the wide river. The mist rising over the steady current of the dark, silt-laden waters concealed its immense energy.
A deep, powerful tone resonated from the lead animals. A crossing site had been selected. The first animal, a large dominant male, stepped over the shallow precipice separating the floodplain and freshly deposited sands banked up against the inside meander of the river. The lead male did not sink into the sand, but assertively padded toward the water's edge. He faltered slightly as he reached the edge, knowing his actions would determine the fate of the whole herd. Nostrils flared and bellowing loudly, the 8,000-pound male propelled himself into the water, pushing up a vast bow wave before his broad chest. Soon only his back, neck, and head were visible above the dark waters, as his powerful legs pushed off the soft sediments of the riverbed. His direction of travel was a gentle diagonal traverse of the river, carried by the downstream flow. A steady line of herd members advanced to the edge of the river. The last major hurdle of the season's migration would soon be behind them.
After several hundred of the herd had entered the river course, an explosion of water and teeth erupted as a huge crocodile launched itself from the shallows. A young hadrosaur's head was grasped in the vice-like grip of the crocodile's jaws. A second explosion followed as another crocodile clamped its jaws around a leg. Screams of alarm echoing along the shore, the herd retreated from the splashing frenzy of jaws, flesh, and bloodstained waters. In a few seconds the young hadrosaur had disappeared from sight. A quiet cloak of death hung over the water. Yet instinct to reach the breeding grounds overcame fear. The crossing resumed.
By midday all but a few stragglers were waiting to take their turn on the now trampled sediments of the river crossing. The crocodiles had feasted frequently for most of the morning, taking dozens of animals, but the numbers of prey left the predators sated and torpid. A young male, not more than ten years old, nervously padded his way to the water's edge. The sweet smell of the water was now tainted with the acrid taste of blood and feces.
As the young male began the crossing, he could already see large numbers of the herd on the opposite bank cloaked in a vast cloud of steam rising from their drying bodies in the midday sun. Plunging in, the animal soon found the river dragging him farther downsteam than was safe. Soon the banks of the river would be too steep for the animal to escape the undertow of the current. Suddenly aware of his plight, the young male began to fight back against the quiet but relentless current. What had started as a tranquil crossing transformed into a struggle for survival. As he pushed desperately with his powerful leg and tail muscles, alarm calls from the opposite banks of the river rose as the herd called to the rapidly disappearing male. As the male was dragged into the vast wasteland of waters where tributaries swelled the river further, the herd disappeared from his view. The exhausted male began to give in to fatigue. The first inhaled water filled the lungs of the hapless animal. In another few minutes the hadrosaur slowly drifted, motionless in the waves.
Another wide meander of the river was dotted with sandbars, a function of the slower moving waters in the inner bend of the watercourse. The fresh carcass of the male hadrosaur settled partially submerged in the waterlogged sands. A small solitary crocodile, a Borealosuchus, attempted to gain entry through the tough hide of the animal. The croc, too, would eat his last fill that day. The rains began to fall. The division between river and sky soon merged as the deluge increased. The river slowly rose over the remains of the hadrosaur, rapidly cocooning the animal in a suit of soft, fresh sediment.
* * *
Reconstructing a scene that occurred more than 65 million years ago might initially seem far-fetched, but locked within any landscape and its fossils are clues that can help resurrect such places and events. The toolkit that helps unearth these events is similar to that of a crime-scene investigator, albeit the scene of the "crime" is far from fresh.
The processes that affect a body after death are possibly the most difficult secrets to exhume. Within minutes of an organism's demise, the body begins to decompose. The complex relationship between body chemistry and the environment in which it decomposes is one we will explore, as well as the processes of decay. Deciphering the grave secrets of a dinosaur is no easy task, given that millions of years have laid waste to the evidence. Where once a living, breathing organism roamed the land are now only rare, disjointed fossil remains locked in stone. To resurrect a dinosaur from its rocky tomb requires skills that have steadily expanded the science of paleontology.
Eight years ago a prehistoric crime scene was uncovered by a young fossil hunter, Tyler Lyson, that would lead dozens of scientists from many disciplines to start the painstaking process of reconstructing the last steps, burial, and fossilization of a dinosaur in the Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota. The dinosaur, which has been nicknamed "Dakota," is one of a rare type of fossil often called dinosaur "mummies." As used by paleontologists, this loosely applied term has quite a different meaning than that used by archaeologists, yet such fossils provide unique information that has allowed us to fill in many gaps in our knowledge about dinosaurs. This new find represents an exciting step forward in a long legacy of discovery.
Before I focus on this specific find, it is worth a quick review of what constitutes a dinosaur. Many children have come across this famous extinct group in books, on TV, and in the movies. Dinosaurs are a British "invention," although the fossil remains of "antediluvian beasts" were known for centuries, from every continent across the globe. The Chinese have long spoken of "Lung," the dragon, whose bones were scattered across many provinces of China and were often rendered into an apothecary's jar for medicinal use. Such tales were most likely based upon giant fossil bones, sometimes from dinosaurs.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also recorded fossil hunting and the interpretation of their finds. A Roman statesman and general, Quintus Sertorius, in 81 B.C. was reported to have found an 80-foot-long skeleton in North Africa. Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman scholar famous for his book Naturalis Historia, documented the discovery of a 69-foot-long giant revealed by an earthquake, and also described at length the life and habits of the mythical griffins of Mongolia. The area of Mongolia that gave rise to this myth is well-populated by the fossil remains of the lion-sized, beak-faced dinosaur Protoceratops. In the third century A.D., the Roman historian Julius Solinus tells of an occasion in the first century B.C. when retreating floodwaters exposed a skeleton nearly 50 feet long in the collapsed sediments of a riverbank.
The Renaissance signified an important step forward in paleontological understanding. Leonardo Da Vinci made many notes on fossil mollusk shells from high mountain passes, speculating as to their origin and preservation. In the year 1565 Conrad Gesner published On Fossil Objects, which was one of the earliest attempts to improve on the work of classical scholars. The book was beautifully illustrated with woodcut prints of fossil specimens, a great advance on the often obscure written descriptions.
Some descriptions in Britain from the 17th and 18th centuries carry wonderfully inappropriate names, such as Scrotum humanum. Rev. Robert Plot first described the fossil in question as a "human thigh bone" in 1676, but the creature was not named S. humanum till 1763 by Robert Brookes. Fortunately, the one with this particular distal end of a thigh bone (femur) now goes by its more recent name, Megalosaurus. A number of "saurian" fossils were excavated and named in the early part of the 19th century, such as Megalosaurus (1824), Iguanodon (1825), and Hylaeosaurus (1832), and many more followed. What became increasingly clear to those who studied these bones was that they were an extinct group of animals, unlike anything alive today. What was needed was a suitable means by which to classify these animals.
Richard Owen, a brilliant comparative anatomist, was granted funds by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to explore these fossil remains of "antediluvian beasts." At the 1841 meeting of the Association in Plymouth, Owen presented many of his findings, and these were published in 1842, when he first used the name dinosauria to unite this distinct tribe of animals. Dinosaurs had been officially invented. Owen stated that dinosaurs were "a distinct tribe of saurian reptiles," deserving a collective name, dinosauria, literally meaning "terrible lizard." He defined dinosaurs by the possession of five fused sacral vertebrae, the region of the backbone that runs through the hip (pelvic) region. This definition has been somewhat refined and expanded in recent years, now including such characteristics as the possession of a rear-facing shoulder joint and an open hip socket among some specimens.
Dinosaurs were first released on the public, so to speak, in 1854 in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The "palace," a vast iron-framed glass house, had been moved from its site in Hyde Park, where it had formed the centerpiece of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the first world's fair. A decision was made to populate the grounds of Sydenham Park with life-size models of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, crocodiles, and pterosaurs. The sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, was commissioned to resurrect this menagerie for the delectation of the public! Dinosaurs were an instant hit, and thousands flocked to see the vast prehistoric reconstructions. Dinosaurs were immortalized by Charles Dickens in the opening passages of Bleak House: "Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."
Copyright © 2008 Phillip Lars Manning.