Natural history buffs throughout the world were recently very excited at the discovery of a dinosaur with very well preserved armoured plates. Dinosaurs with intact armour are very scarce. This is considered one of the best fossils ever found.
It was accidentally unearthed in an oil sands mine operated by energy company Suncor in northern Alberta on 21 March 2011 by heavy-equipment operator Shawn Funk.
The mass of rock containing the find was sent to the preparation lab at the Royal Tyrrell Museum where Mark Mitchell painstakingly laboured over it, carefully chipping away the surrounding rock, a process which took him 7 000 hours over nearly six years.
The museum is situated near Drumheller, Alberta and is about 135 km (84 miles) from Calgary. It is a specialist paleontology museum and home to over 130 000 fossils.
It has been revealed as a new genus and species, colloquially known as a nodosaur.
“We knew six years ago this dinosaur was going to be special,” says the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, Don Henderson. “I don’t think we realized how special it was.”
Our ancient friend was finally ready to be unveiled in May 2017. His (her?) official name is Borealopelta markmitchelli, an apt honour for the guy who spent so much effort making him presentable and ready to face the world again.
“If it were not for his commitment, Borealopelta probably never would have come to light,” says Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the museum. “It’s an extreme amount of effort. The preparers are often the unsung heroes.”
In life this nodosaur and his kin weighed approximately 2800 pounds (1270 kg) and about 18 feet (5.5 metres) in length. Nodosaurs were herbivores (i.e. plant eaters) but since they had a weak bite were probably unable to chew their food much.
“It’s a beautiful specimen”, says Victoria Arbour, who’s a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Ontario Museum, who’s studying another well-preserved dinosaur called Zuul crurivastator. “It’s great to have specimens like this one and Zuul that give us an idea of what these dinosaurs looked like when they were alive.”
This nodosaur looks like he’s glaring coldly at the camera – an effect caused by the very well preserved eye socket.
This specimen will enable scientists to better understand what they looked like and how they moved. They lived in the Cretaceous period around 110 million years ago and this one was found in what is today Alberta, Canada. It appears to have been drowned and washed away by a flooded river which later swept it out to the open sea.
The sheaths of its armoured plates were made of keratin – the same substance our fingernails are made from.
The armour on its neck was more pronounced that elsewhere on its body. The right side of its head shows distinctive tile-like plates and a patina of fossilized skin.
Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist from the University of Bristol co-authored the nodosaur study. He claims that the dinosaur had a dark coating over most of its body, caused by a reddish-brown pigment called pheomelanin. Fewer traces of pheomelanin were found on the underbelly. This would have made the underbelly lighter in colour – a not unusual feature among many animals. When used for camouflage purposes, this colour scheme is known as countershading. This “two-tone” look flattens an animal’s appearance from afar, making it harder for predators to spot.
“The short story is, the Cretaceous (was) bloody scary,” Vinther says. “We have evidence that therapods were eating Borealopelta (and other) large, heavily armoured herbivores, taking them down and gulping them up.”
It’s hard for us to picture the sheer size and power of creatures that could bring down a 6 metre, 1270 kg reptile for dinner. Crocs and sharks look positively puny in comparison!
One thing is clear – this handsome Borealopelta will be the subject of much study, research and debate for many years to come as its secrets are slowly revealed and more date becomes available.
Thanks and acknowledgements to photographer Robert Clark from National Geographic for the images I’ve used (all except for the top two).