Scientists have discovered what appear to be red blood cells and collagen fibers in the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.
Traces of the soft tissues were found by accident when researchers at London’s Imperial College analyzed eight rather shabby fossils that had been dug up in Canada a century ago before finding their way to the Natural History Museum in London.
The finding suggests that scores of dinosaur fossils in museums around the world could retain soft tissues, and with it the answers to major questions about dinosaur physiology. More speculatively, it has made scientists ponder whether dinosaur DNA might also be found.
Most of the fossils the scientists studied were only fragments and in very poor condition. They included a claw from a meat-eating therapod, perhaps a gorgosaurus, some limb and ankle bones from a duck-billed dinosaur, and a toe bone from triceratops-like animal.
Intact soft tissue has been spotted in dinosaur fossils before, most famously by Mary Schweitzer at North Carolina State University, who in 2005 found flexible, transparent collagen in the fossilized leg of a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen.
What makes the latest discovery so remarkable is that the blood cells and collagen were found in specimens that the researchers themselves describe as “crap.”
If soft tissue can survive in these fossils, then museum collections of more impressive remains could harbor troves of soft dinosaur tissue. Those could help unravel mysteries of dinosaur physiology and behavior that have been impossible to crack with bony remains alone.
“It’s really difficult to get curators to allow you to snap bits off their fossils. The ones we tested are crap, very fragmentary, and they are not the sorts of fossils you’d expect to have soft tissue,” Imperial College paleontologist Susannah Maidment said.
Imperial College materials scientist Sergio Bertazzo had been working on the build up of calcium in human blood vessels when he met Maidment and asked if he could study some fossils with an array of electron microscope techniques.
Months after the specimens arrived, Bertazzo began to look at thin sections of the fossils. He began with the therapod claw.
“One morning, I turned on the microscope, increased the magnification, and thought ‘wait — that looks like blood,’” he said.
Mammals are unusual among vertebrates in having red blood cells that lack a cell nucleus. If the fossil’s blood cells had nuclei, they could not be human. When they sliced through one of the cells to check, they saw what looked like a nucleus.
University College paleontologist Anjali Goswami said that if dinosaur soft tissues were found in many more fossils, it could have a transformative effect on research.
“If we can expand the data we have on soft tissues, from fossils that are poorly preserved, that has real implications for our understanding of life in deep time,” she said.
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