Data from fossils and modern carcasses indicates a simple path to preserving dinosaur skin.
Dinosaur “mummies” aren’t as exceptional as we might expect. That’s because of a relatively simple process of desiccation (drying out) and deflation, according to a study by Stephanie Drumheller of the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and colleagues that was published on October 12, 2022, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
The term “mummy” is often used to describe dinosaur fossils with fossilized skin. These are relatively rare. Many scientists believe that such fossils only form under exceptional circumstances. That’s because it is thought that in order for skin to become fossilized, a carcass must be shielded from scavenging and decomposition by rapid burial and/or desiccation. Drumheller and colleagues propose a novel explanation for how such “mummies” might form in this research study, where they combined insights from fossil evidence with observations on modern animal carcasses.
The investigators examined a fossil of a dinosaur called Edmontosaurus from North Dakota. It features large patches of desiccated and seemingly deflated skin on the limbs and tail. Bite marks from carnivores on the dinosaur’s skin were identified by the researchers. These are the first documented examples of unhealed carnivore damage on fossil dinosaur skin. Moreover, this is evidence that the dinosaur carcass was not protected from scavengers, yet it became a mummy nonetheless.