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Well-preserved skin may be from a mummy

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Stephanie Drumheller et al. PLOS ONEdino-skin-texture
Fig. 1. Hadrosaur digit (finger) with white arrows showing bite punctures in the scaly skin.

On hearing about ‘mummies’, pharaohs in Egypt readily come to mind. However, mummy is the term researchers have applied to a fossil Edmontosaurus from North Dakota, a dinosaur of the hadrosaur family.

Its skin is remarkably well preserved. The authors of a PLOS ONE article explain how they think this happened.1 They claim that the carcass’s skin dried out first before being buried and then fossilized.

A Focus item in Creation 45(1) featured another hadrosaur with well-preserved skin, found in Alberta. In September 2022, its co-discoverer Brian Pickles argued the specimen “was covered quite quickly, otherwise it wouldn’t be this well preserved”.2

Not so with this PLOS ONE report, which came out less than a month later. The authors come to this (somewhat but not completely different) ‘mummy’ conclusion.

It is actually a re-investigation of a North Dakota fossil others had previously reported on in 2009.3

Banking on a sandy river

The authors of that earlier report thought, “The remains of hadrosaur MRF-03 were preserved through rapid burial on the margins of a sandy river channel.”3

Quick burial in a flood does provide an ideal scenario for preservation.4 Under normal conditions, the large numbers of creatures that die continually, all around the planet, do not tend to leave fossils. They fall victim to natural decay and hungry scavengers (fig. 2, A & B).

Paleoart by Becky Barnes | CC-BY 4.0 | ©2022 Stephanie Drumheller et al. | PLOS ONE doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0275240Edmontosaurus
Fig. 2. A newly proposed skin preservation mechanism of the Edmontosaurus. (A) Dead dinosaur exposed and scavenged. (B) Small creatures go in and out through openings. (C) Removal of internal organs with drainage of fluids and gases allows the skin to dry.

Skin desiccation

Although the authors of the recent PLOS ONE article recognize that rapid burial contributes to soft tissue preservation, they argue that the skin in this case required “weeks to months” of “desiccation [drying out] prior to entombment and fossilization”.1 Fig. 2C depicts the process, where the ‘wet’ internals of the body have been removed by scavenging (supported by tooth marks on the hadrosaur’s bones), and the leftover skin flaps are exposed to the air. They suggested that this does not necessarily have to be dry air, but that mummification “can occur in relatively humid environments when remains have experienced incomplete scavenging.”1

One big question is, as they put it:

How would large dinosaurian remains, which were available food for any scavenger in the environment, persist for long enough to desiccate and deflate in an open landscape?1

They then hypothesize about what environmental circumstances might have permitted this:

Perhaps the remains were somehow made inaccessible [to scavengers] after the animal’s death, or a mass death event or large-scale seasonal die-off occurred, providing a glut of resources for the meat eaters in an environment?1

Some aspects of their speculation are plausible. But it’s hard to see how a glut of dead dinosaurs would reduce the amount of attack by insects—or especially bacteria, which multiply rapidly (the more nutrient, the more bacteria to decompose it).

BEDS

Presuming their mummification concept to be correct for this specimen, a biblical worldview can reconcile this (and the marks of scavenging) with its subsequent burial and preservation.

Michael Oard’s BEDS model is especially useful in this. BEDS is an acronym for Briefly Exposed Diluvial Sediments.5 As the name implies, the BEDS model describes the periods during Noah’s Flood when the waters would intermittently allow for exposure of the land for days to weeks at a time. This may be due to tectonic movement, tsunamis, lunar tides, and other mechanisms. It is not difficult to envisage that while the floodwaters overall were rising, a tsunami could run far onto the not-yet-submerged land—killing many organisms in its path—before its waters receded for a time.

Such a surge of water would explain the drowned animals, and the subsequent BEDS provide a way for (still-surviving) scavengers from the wider area to move in and feast on the carcasses lying around (fig. 2). The skins could then dry out somewhat, before being entombed by sediments from the relentlessly rising waters. This correlates well with the events envisaged by these scientists (emphasis added):

The observed combination of desiccation and incomplete scavenging suggest[s] that NDGS 2000 [this particular dinosaur specimen] persisted on the landscape for some time prior to burial … .1

Many who do not hold to a biblical worldview will nonetheless concede that long ages of slow sedimentation and gradual burial are inadequate to make a fossil. They frequently invoke rapid burial by a local flood to explain the preservation of fossils. The inadequacy of this is underlined by the fact that many of the layers in which the fossils are buried extend across entire continents. They even sometimes match across separate continents.

Soft tissue—potential confusion

There are many reports of fossils referring to ‘soft tissue preservation’. For example, the title of the main paper about this specimen includes that phrase.1

But this term can confuse. It can refer to the fact that fossilization has preserved the outline or appearance of soft tissue, such as a brain, a jellyfish, or as in this case, the impression of the skin—not necessarily requiring any of the original soft tissue to still be present. (Rapid burial in mineral-rich sediment before such tissue can be scavenged is an obvious way this can happen, with or without prior drying out.)

However, the same term can also refer to the more sensational finding that some of the actual soft tissue, along with original biomolecules such as degraded proteins, is still present. After millions of years, that simply should not be.6 The hadrosaur mummy discussed in this article is a good example of this second category:

Historically, soft tissues in such mummies were thought to have decayed away, leaving behind molds or sediment infilled casts of the original soft tissue, but molecular sampling of NDGS 2000 yielded putative dinosaurian biomarkers (e.g. degraded proteins, etc.), suggesting the soft tissue was preserved directly in this specimen.1

Conclusion

Noah’s Flood has proven to have much explanatory power, and the BEDS hypothesis is a useful addition for exceptions to the general rule.

Published: 5 December 2023

References and notes

  1. Drumheller, S., et al., Biostratinomic alterations of an Edmontosaurus ‘mummy’ reveal a pathway for soft tissue preservation without invoking ‘exceptional conditions’, PLOS ONE 17(10):e0275240, 12 Oct 2022. Return to text.
  2. Nalewicki, J., Rare fossils reveal basketball-like skin on duck-billed dinosaur, livescience.com, 6 Sep 2022. Return to text.
  3. Manning, P., et al., Mineralized soft-tissue structure and chemistry in a mummified hadrosaur from the Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota (USA), Proc. Biol. Sci. 276(1672):3429–3437, 7 Oct 2009. Return to text.
  4. Tuinstra, L., Flood-buried crocodile’s last supper was a dinosaur, creation.com/crocodile-eats-dinosaur, 14 Apr 2022. Return to text.
  5. Oard, M., Dinosaur Challenges and Mysteries, CBP, Chapter 8, 2011, creation.com/s/10-2-582. Return to text.
  6. For more on the importance of distinguishing these two categories, see: CMI Editors, Soft tissue in fossils vs fossilized soft tissue—a clarification, creation.com/soft-tissue-clarification, 25 Oct 2022. Return to text.

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