Resurrecting a Dragon
An ancient underwater burial yields one of the best dinosaur fossils ever discovered. Take an exclusive 3‑D tour of the find below.
Scroll to continue
Solving the Puzzle
Found in 2011 and painstakingly prepared for the last five years, this specimen is among the best armored dinosaur fossils ever found. Incredibly, it fossilized in 3‑D, preserving the intricate details of its armor and soft tissue. The fossil is nearly intact from the animal’s snout to its hips; researchers suspect it initially fossilized whole.
A Life Reconstructed
In life this imposing herbivore, named Borealopelta markmitchelli, stretched 18 feet long and weighed at least 3,000 pounds. Unlike its more famous cousins in the subgroup Ankylosauridae, this nodosaurid ankylosaur (or nodosaur, for short) didn’t have a tail club.
In Living Color?
The paleontologists studying Borealopelta claim that it had reddish brown skin but a light underbelly, a type of camouflage called countershading. If so, its predators must have been fierce; the nodosaur is far more massive than today’s countershaded land animals. However, some outside paleontologists argue that the chemical evidence for coloration is inconclusive. Time and future study will tell.
The Face of a Dinosaur
The skull of Borealopelta still bears distinctive tile-like plates and a gray patina of fossilized skin. Its shape affirms that the dinosaur is a nodosaur, while the mouth and teeth suggest the animal had a weak bite and didn’t chew its food much.
Shielded From Time
Thanks to its plunge into an ancient seaway’s muddy seafloor, Borealopelta’s armor fossilized in place and retained its shape. The remarkably preserved plates—only slightly distorted from their shape in life—will help scientists reconstruct other dinosaurs’ armor, which often scattered early in decay.
The excavation that led to Borealopelta’s chance discovery resulted in these fossil blocks cleaving in half along the plane of the armor. The accidental split exposes the armor plates’ bony cores in cross section, as well as the animal’s ribs and tail‑supporting tendons.
Beyond the Visible
Since the cross section exposes the fossil’s organic-rich innards, these blocks are excellent candidates for multispectral imaging. This photographic technique uses ultraviolet and infrared light (seen here in false color) to reveal detail and contrast invisible to the naked eye.
In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs
Fossilization not only preserved one of the hind feet (seen here upside down) but also captured the 3-D spacing of the foot’s bones and soft tissue. A carbon-rich film traces scales on the fleshy footpad, which resembles those of today’s birds and big lizards.
Belly of the Beast
A kaleidoscopic cluster of pea-size masses in the nodosaur’s torso are likely fossilized bits of the animal’s final meal. Chemical tests should give insight into Borealopelta’s diet and environment—offering scientists a remarkable glimpse into the past.