Hadrosaur hi-jinx

Will this find reveal more unfossilised soft tissues?

Illustrated by F. John hadrosaurus


Scientists have revealed an exceptionally well-preserved hadrosaur fossil from the Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota USA.1 The animal would have been about 35 feet (12 meters) long and weighed about 3.5 tons.

The fossil, dubbed ‘Dakota’, was found in 1999, but is only now being widely publicised in light of a documentary about it airing in the USA on 9 December.2 It’s ‘dated’ at 67 million years old.

Rethinking hadrosaur morphology

The fossil find was unusually well preserved, even uncovering the complete skeleton and showing details of the skin and muscles.3 Consequently, this find has shed new light on many features of hadrosaur morphology.

The vertebrae were found to have 1-cm gaps between the bones, and the position of the skin around its tail suggested that the muscle mass of the hardrosaur’s rear end was 25% higher than previously believed. According to preliminary calculations, this suggests that Dakota could outrun a T. rex. Specifically, they estimated that Dakota could run at 45 km/h (28 mph), compared to the latest estimates for T. rex at 30 km/h (18 mph) (see Galloping giants). However, John Hutchinson, expert in the movement of living and extinct animals at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College, urged caution with such figures because they may be out by more than 50%, which would lead to the speeds of Dakota and T. rex overlapping: ‘Knowing the leg muscle mass would reduce at least one uncertainty. That’s progress, but there are still huge uncertainties left.’4

The ‘mummified’ fossil even has details of the skin, and these suggest the animal had a striped appearance. Excavation leader Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Britain’s University of Manchester, said: ‘There seems to be a variation in scale size that might possibly correlate—as it does in modern reptiles in many cases—with changes in color … There seems to be striping patternations associated with joint areas on the arm, and there’s interesting information we’re looking at in the tail as well.’

The new information revealed by the fossilization of the animal’s soft parts, reminds us of how wrong we can be about an animal’s morphology just from just its bones. It also demonstrates that evolutionary ‘family trees’, which are based on fossil remains that generally involve just small differences between bones, are rather arbitrary and why they are subject to such vastly different interpretations.

Unfossilised soft tissue?

Many news stories canvassed the possibility of finding unfossilised soft tissue in ‘Dakota’,5 especially in light of the find of unfossilised soft tissue in T. rex bones in recent years (see Squishosaur scepticism squashed).6 However, no such tissue has yet been confirmed in Dakota.

The identification of unfossilised soft tissue would certainly be a sure-fire way of promoting the find, but would it help evolutionists? Unfossilised soft tissues only lasts thousands, not millions, of years according to experimental and theoretical limits (see Still soft and stretchy). If unfossilized soft tissue is found long agers will no doubt appeal to unknown preservation conditions, contrary to the evidence, to preserve the millions-of-years myth, as has been done before:

‘The presence of original molecular components is not predicted for fossils older than a million years, and the discovery of collagen in this well-preserved dinosaur supports the use of actualistic conditions to formulate molecular degradation rates and models, rather than relying on theoretical or experimental extrapolations derived from conditions that do not occur in nature.’7

Dakota’s exceptional preservation is certainly consistent with the biblical Flood, suggesting very rapid preservation underwater in a mineral-rich environment. It will be interesting to see whether further examination produces unfossilised soft tissue.

Blood and soft tissue in T. rex bone:

Other examples of soft tissue preservation in fossils:

Published: 7 December 2007


  1. Roach, J., Dinosaur mummy found: has intact skin, tissue, National Geographic News, 3 December 2007; Academic uncovers holy grail of paleontology, PhysOrg, 3 December 2007. Return to Text.
  2. Mummified dinosaur unveiled, National Geographic News, 3 December 2007. Return to Text.
  3. Though this has been called ‘mummified’ by some, this term is simply a reference to the quality of the fossilised preservation. It does not refer to preservation via the process of mummification, either by humans or naturally. In fact, mummification does not fossilise an object. Return to Text.
  4. Roach, ref., p. 2. Return to Text.
  5. Roach, ref., p. 2; Dinosaur mummy found with fossilized skin and soft tissues, Science Daily, 3 December 2007. Return to Text.
  6. Schweitzer, M.H., Suo, Z., Avci, R., Asara, J.M., Allen, M.A., Arce, F.T., and Horner, J.R., Analyses of soft tissue from Tyrannosaurus rex suggest the presence of protein, Science 316(5822):277–280, 2007. Return to Text.
  7. Schweitzer et al., ref. 6, p. 280. Return to Text.