Since bones are better equipped to withstand the passing of time, paleontologists have not been able to recover any considerable amounts soft tissue samples from dinosaur fossils, as these were the first to decay upon the creature’s death. However, a team of researchers from North Carolina State University got their hands on a soft tissue sample in 2005. The cartilaginous tissue belonged to a creature that roamed the Earth approximately 200 million years ago, the Lufengosaurus.
The herbivorous dinosaur had a long neck and traveled across what is now called southwestern China on two legs, say the scientists. The report, published last week in the journal Nature, contains the paleontologists’ discovery of a small amount of preserved collagen in the fossilized ribs of the Lufengosaurus.
The most recent discovery pushes back by 100 million years the time stamp of the oldest known dinosaur soft tissue sample unearthed, also promoting a better understanding of ancient dinosaur proteins. For the past decades, except the latest, researchers were only able to base their understanding of the extinct creatures on fossilized bones, as soft tissue (blood vessels, skin, and muscle) were among the first subjected to decay upon the creatures’ death. However, bones were able to endure through millennia as water and mud from the areas surrounding them slowly infiltrated them and ultimately turned hard tissue to rock.
In spite of the fact that fossilized bones hold a great deal of information on the extinct creatures’ behavior and appearance, scientists were unable to examine them in detail using modern molecular biology. However, in 2005, Mary Schweitzer from the North Carolina State University was able to employ modern molecular biology techniques on a 68-million-years-old Tyrannosaurus rex that had collagen and blood traces preserved within.
However, only a handful of other similar samples have been since discovered. Most of them were dated back to the late Cretaceous, otherwise known as the period of time that ended in the mass extinction 65 million years ago after an asteroid supposedly slammed into our planet.
“Soft tissue lets you ask the really cool questions”, said Mary Schweitzer about the latest discovery.
The recent finding is now leading more paleontologists by the day to probe for other samples that could contain soft tissue.
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