It was like no other fossil I have ever seen.
It was like the animal was still alive.
One might say that the long-dead dinosaur was looking into my soul. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic… To be blunt though, it was quite the experience.
Beginning in the summer of 2017, photos of a beautiful dinosaur specimen started to appear on my news feed. The photos alone made it immediately clear that this was no ordinary fossil. The phrase “dinosaur mummy” accompanied posts about the dinosaur, and for good reason: the animal looks exactly the same as it did when it died. Even onscreen, the amazing state of preservation was a sight to behold. Two years later, I got my chance to see the mummy in person, and as you can tell from my introduction, it did not disappoint.
Finding Dinosaur “Gold”
The mummy dinosaur was a one-in-a-million find. For 110 million years, the dinosaur was buried deep in the Albertan wilderness. That was until 2011 when workers from the energy company Suncor struck gold. They decided to seek assistance from the leading institution for Albertan paleontology, the Royal Tyrell Museum. The Tyrell’s Paleontologists recognized the significance of the fossil, opting to transport it back to Drumheller. On their first attempt at transporting the fossil it fell, almost destroying it entirely. Despite this initial setback, the paleontologists rallied and successfully delivered the fossil to the Tyrell.
Hard Work and Dedication Reveal the Ancient Beauty
Upon reaching the Tyrell, fossil preparator Mark Mitchell was given the difficult task of removing protective layers of rock from the mystery dinosaur. It took Mitchell over five years and some 7,000 hours to finally reveal the mystery dinosaur. For his efforts, he was rewarded in two different ways. The first was that the dinosaur, Borealopelta markmitchelli, was named after the man who spent five years of his life working tirelessly to uncover it. The other way? The sheer beauty of Borealopelta, easily the most beautiful dinosaur specimen of all time.
Untouched Since Time of Death
As I have stated before, the fossil of Borealopelta looks identical as it did in life. Borealopelta belongs to a group of dinosaurs known as the Nodosaurids, close relatives of the more famous Ankylosaurids. Like the Ankylosaurids, Nodosaurids were covered in bony projections known as osteoderms that acted as armor for these animals. The fossils of most Nodosaurids are highly disarticulated, with only fragmentary remains being discovered in most instances. These scattered fossils create an unclear picture of Nodosaur appearance, as most approximations of where the osteoderms would be placed are pure guesswork. However, the fossil of Borealopelta is unique as all osteoderms have remained in place through its death. The fossil is so intact that its stomach contents are preserved! It is due to this fact that Borealopelta is such a special specimen, as it is a rare glimpse into what the Nodosaurids actually looked like.
Nodosaurids and Ankylosaurids: The Belly-Up Dinosaurs
The placement of Borealopelta’s remains were quite strange. Aside from being discovered upside-down with its legs missing, the fossil was also found in the midst of a marine deposit. The questions had to be asked: How did a heavily armored dinosaur end up at the bottom of the ocean? Why was it upside-down? While the middle of Alberta is quite distant from any body of water in the present, it used to be home to a massive inland sea. When Borealopelta was alive, Alberta would have lay on the shore of this massive seaway, with vast river systems interconnecting the sea to the land. After Borealopelta died, its remains washed out to sea before predators had the chance to scavenge its remains. As for being upside-down, paleontologists have theorized that the cause for this is due to gas. To make it clear, when animals die, their remains typically become bloated with gas. In the case of Borealopelta, this gas increased its natural buoyancy. Due to the fact that the stomach was much lighter than its unarmored back, it caused Borealopelta to go belly-up when it was in the water. Eventually, the gas burst causing Borealopelta to sink back to the bottom of the sea where it was buried very quickly, preventing decomposers from feasting. In fact, since most Nodosaurids and Ankylosaurids are found upside-down, it is believed that this is a family-wide occurrence amongst the armored dinosaurs.
Armor Wasn’t Enough
Living in Cretaceous Alberta was no walk in the park. Multiple species of predatory dinosaurs, including massive Carcharodontosaurids (predatory theropods larger than Tyrannosaurus in some cases), Raptors, and even early Tyrannosaurids all lived alongside Borealopelta. To protect itself from attack, heavy armor wasn’t the only defense mechanism employed by Borealopelta. Studies undertaken by the Tyrell have revealed that Borealopelta also used a method of camouflage known as countershading. This means the back of an animal looks dark while its’ stomach is shaded light, blending the animal into the terrain around it. Further, the fossil specimen is so pristine that through chemical analysis, the team was able to identify that the colors of Borealopelta comprised a red-brown scheme. This coloring may have ensured the protection of Borealopelta in the dangerous cretaceous world.
The remains of Borealopelta are the most beautiful fossil I have ever laid eyes on. Aside from its magnificence, Borealopelta is an importance scientific find, providing paleontologists with clear evidence regarding the armored dinosaurs currently known.
A really cool graphic of the life and death of Borealopelta can be found Here
I do not take credit for any of the artwork in this article. But credit for the photo of me goes to my Mom!
Borealopelta nature scene art courtesy of Davide Bonadonna, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/making-of-a-dinosaur-fossil-nodosaur-illustrations/#fossil
Aerial Borealopelta art courtesy of Julius Csotonyi, https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/14073817569804234/
Borealopelta skeleton found at https://www.dogonews.com/2017/9/1/110-million-year-old-dinosaur-is-so-well-preserved-it-could-be-napping/page/43
2nd Borealopelta skeleton found at https://news.artnet.com/art-world/8-incredible-archaeological-finds-1653145
Mark Mitchell photo found at https://superscience.scholastic.com/issues/2017-18/110117/death-of-a-dinosaur.html
Canales, Manuel. “This Is the Best Dinosaur Fossil of Its Kind Ever Found.” National Geographic, 12 May 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/dinosaur-nodosaur-fossil-discovery/
CellPressNews. “Despite Heavy Armor, New Dinosaur Used Camouflage to Hide from Predators.” EurekAlert!, 3 Aug. 2017, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-08/cp-dha072717.php