Welcome back to the beginners guide of mummified fossils! While the first part of this series featured mummies from the last 60,000 years or so, today’s article will focus on older specimens. Despite being millions years old, our mummies demonstrate how the processes of fossilization can leave animals intact for millenia. So sit back, relax, and prepare to meet the mummies of animals long extinct…
Frog: 34 Million Years Old
Our first specimen looks more like ceramic creation than a 34-million-year-old fossilized frog. Discovered in 1873 in Southwestern France, this specimen of the Eocene frog species Thaumastosaurus gezei has been described as remarkable for its lifelike, almost “gooey” appearance[i]. CT scans of the frog mummy have revealed an intact skeleton underneath, turning our amphibious mummy into a prehistoric Russian nesting doll.
Thescelosaurus: 66 Million Years Old
…Am I the only one who thinks this dinosaur looks like an extra-burnt barbeque chicken?
The mummified leg of the herbivorous dinosaur Thescelosaurus has created quite a stir in the paleontological community. The Tanis fossil site of North Dakota, where our mummified leg was discovered, has been linked to the day the dinosaurs died, though this has been debated. If the poor Thescelosaurus did perish during the last day of the dinosaurs, then I guess it was barbeque chicken after all!
Edmontosaurus x3: 67 Million Years Old
Three for one special! The duck billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus is represented by three mummies. AMNH (American Museum of Natural History) 5060 was the first dinosaur to be discovered with skin impressions in 1908. The second, SMF R 4036 (Naturmuseum Senckenberg in Frankfurt, Germany) was used to hypothesize that hadrosaurids practised aquatic behaviours, though this has since been debunked. Both AMNH 5060 and SMF R 4036 were discovered in Wyoming by Charles H. Sternberg, one of the legends of paleontology in North America.
The third Edmontosaurus mummy was discovered nearly a century after the first two in North Dakota. Named “Dakota” (seems kind of lazy), the third Edmontosaurus was so well preserved that it’s tendons and ligaments were discovered![ii] Since dinosaur mummies are rare, it’s incredible that we have three from the same species, highlighting how common Edmontosaurus was during the late Cretaceous Period.
A Questionable Protoceratops: 75 Million Years Old
Not much is known about a potential mummified Protoceratops skeleton, except that it has been lost to science. Discovered in the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia in the 1920’s, the head of this small ceratopsian appeared to have been mummified. Unfortunately, any potential analysis of the skin is no longer possible due to preparation of the specimen[iii]. Gone, but not forgotten…
Leonardo the Brachylophosaurus: 77 Million Years Old
Another hadrosaur mummy comes in the form of Leonardo, a mummified Brachylophosaurus. Leonardo was not named after dinosaur enthusiast Leo DiCaprio, but he is spectacular nonetheless. With much of his body being covered in scale imprints, Leonardo has been able to tell paleontologists a lot about hadrosaurs, including the presence of keratin beaks and that (some of them, at least) had parasitic worms[iv]. I suppose that means a few organisms were mummified in one dinosaur!
Borealopelta: 113 Million Years Old
Potentially the most spectacular mummy on our guide is the armoured nodosaurid Borealopelta. Discovered in 2011, Borealopelta is so well preserved that it looks like a dinosaur at rest. The scientific value of the specimen is immense, as the armour configuration, diet, and even colour patterns of Borealopelta have all been revealed by the specimen. Though many impressive fossils are out there, Borealopelta may just be my personal favourite – at least amongst the ones I have had the chance to see in person.
Technically a Mummy: Psittacosaurus, 125 Million Years Old
Even though it isn’t quite a mummy, it might as well be included. The Senckenberg specimen of the Asian ceratopsian Psittacosaurus is one of the most important fossils in existence. It is because of this fossil that paleontologists known that horned dinosaurs may have had rudimentary feathers; had a cloaca and belly button; and, they utilized camouflage to blend into their surroundings. While it may not be a mummy, the outstanding preservation and details that have been inferred from the Senckenberg Psittacosaurus make it a worthy addition to this list.
Lystrosaurus: 251 Million Years Old
The mummies that inspired this series are also the latest to be described. On August 23rd, a detailed study was published that, amongst other things, describes the mummified remains of two Lystrosaurus juveniles from South Africa’s Karoo Basin[v]. Lystrosaurus was not a dinosaur, but rather a dicynodont – a cousin of the lineage that would become mammals. The Lystrosaurus mummies were noted to resemble modern mummified animals and likely formed due to the Early Triassic’s extremely arid and dry climates.
In many ways, the presence of Lystrosaurus from the Early Triassic expands the boundaries for fossil mummies. If mummified remains can survive for upwards of 250 million years, then who knows what could be discovered next. A mummified Triceratops? Dimetrodon? I am excited to see what will be discovered next.
Thank you for reading today’s guide to mummified fossils! If you would like to know more about Borealopelta, I suggest you read about “The World’s Best Fossil,” here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
Or, if you’d like to know why Psittacosaurus is so important to paleontologists, then read about the dinosaur that just keeps on giving.
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
[i] Black, Riley. “Fossil Frog Still Looks Gooey after over 34 Million Years.” Science, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/fossil-frog-still-looks-gooey-after-over-34-million-years?loggedin=true.
[ii] Roach, John. “‘Dinosaur Mummy’ Found; Has Intact Skin, Tissue.” Science, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/north-dakota-dinosaur-mummy.
[iii] Bell, Phil R., et al. “The Exquisitely Preserved Integument of Psittacosaurus and the Scaly Skin of Ceratopsian Dinosaurs.” Communications Biology, vol. 5, no. 1, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-03749-3.
[v] Smith, Roger M.H., et al. “Taphonomy of Drought Afflicted Tetrapods in the Early Triassic Karoo Basin, South Africa.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 2022, p. 111207., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2022.111207.