Scientists find soft tissue fossil evidence that could unlock the biology of dinosaurs

By Culture24 Reporter | 09 June 2015

Scientists have found remnants bearing similarities to red blood cells and collagen fibres in fragments of dinosaur fossils

a close up of an articulated dinosaur skeleton
Could dinosuar fossils yield evidence of soft tissue and blood? This image shows the pelvic bone and hip structure of Edmontosaurus, an Ornithischian dinosaur© Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Scientists examining fossils in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London have found remnants with some similarities to red blood cells and collagen fibres.

Analysing eight fossil fragments held in the museum’s Sternberg and Cutler collections for more than a century, the team found that part of a 75-million-year-old fossilised dinosaur claw contained tiny structures which look ovoid and have a denser inner core.

The hope is that if red blood cells can be found in fossilised dinosaur fragments, it could help scientists to understand when dinosaurs evolved a warm blooded, bird-like metabolism.

In another dinosaur fossil fragment, the team also found structures that looked fibrous and had a banded structure similar to the banding that can be seen in modern day collagen fibres.

If the team can establish the presence of collagen-like structures it could provide a new independent line of evidence to show how various dinosaur groups are related to each other.

If proven, the study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, may cause palaeontologists to rethink how fossils are preserved. It could even be the first step towards establishing a better understanding of the biology of dinosaurs and the relationships between different species.

“Our study is helping us to see that preserved soft tissue may be more widespread in dinosaur fossils than we originally thought,” says the author of the study, Dr Susannah Maidment, a Junior Research Fellow from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London.

Dr Maidment explained that although remnants of soft tissues have previously been discovered in rare, exceptionally preserved fossils, this latest study is particularly exciting due to structures reminiscent of blood cells and collagen fibres being found in scrappy, poorly preserved fossils.

“This suggests that this sort of soft tissue preservation might be widespread in fossils,” she adds.

“Early indications suggest that these poorly preserved fossils may be useful pieces in the dinosaur jigsaw puzzle to help us understand in more detail how dinosaurs evolved into being warm blooded creatures, and how different dinosaur species were related.”

The team used a range of techniques to carry out their study including electron microscopy scanning and a focused ion beam which was used to slice into the samples and observe the internal structure of the fossils.

They also examined the fossils using a transmission electron microscope to detect the fibrous structures and compared their findings to the blood structure of an emu and found some similarities in the organic signatures.

  • Fibres and cellular structures preserved in 75 million year old dinosaur specimens is published on June 9 in Nature Communications.

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