It could be the best-preserved dinosaur ever found and now it has a name — in honour of the Alberta museum technician who pored over it for years.
What scientists are calling the “Mona Lisa” of dinosaurs was discovered in 2011 at a Suncor Millennium oil sands site near Fort McMurray, Alta.
LISTEN: Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum appears on the 630 CHED Afternoon News
Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, said a group of miners stopped digging when some strange rocks started tumbling out of the excavation.
“It’s a big deal to stop [the oilsands,] because that place goes 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but we’re so glad they stopped,” Henderson told 630 CHED.
“So we flew up that one day, and looked at the chunks and thought ‘Wow! We have to get this.'”
Henderson said they instantly could tell it was a dinosaur and a special find.
“And we knew the preservation was amazing, even from this chunk, you know, about the size of the classic size of a bread box — that we could see the scales in nice rows. We could see the armour with the scales. We could see the ribs. We could tell it was in three dimensions, uncrushed.”
In fact, the entire 110-million-year-old fossil was covered in skin, which would create some challenges for Henderson and the other researchers.
“He’s so well-preserved, we can’t actually see the skeleton,” said Henderson. “Other dinosaurs related to this one are known from their skeleton. So it’s tough for us to try and relate our dinosaur precisely because we can’t see the skeleton.
“It’s almost too-well preserved.”
Turns out, they also had trouble because it was a previously undiscovered species. With fossilized skin and scales, the dragon-like creature is a new kind of nodosaur. And because it was new, they got to name it.
Over the last five and a half years, it took more than 7,000 hours to clean the specimen for display. That important job, Henderson said, was done by Royal Tyrrell Museum technician Mark Mitchell.
“So we’re calling it Borealopelta markmitchelli,” said Henderson. “So the name translates as ‘Mark Mitchell’s Northern Shield.'”
Researchers said the nodosaur had predators, despite the fact that it was the “dinosaur equivalent of a tank.” The plant-eater had huge shoulder spikes, was five and a half metres long, weighed one and a half tons, and is currently on display at the museum in Drumheller.
Because of its impeccable condition, scientists have already learned something new from the dinosaur: they found signs of what may be pigmentation for camouflage in its skin. That could mean that even its huge size and heavy armour may not have been enough to deter predators.
— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News
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