A pregnant Tyrannosaurus rex has been found, shedding light on the evolution of egg-laying as well as on gender differences in the dinosaur.
The remains also could contain the holy grail of all dinosaur fossils: DNA.
"Yes, it's possible," Lindsay Zanno told Discovery News, referring to genetic material that may be present in this as well as similar dinosaur finds. "We have some evidence that fragments of DNA may be preserved in dinosaur fossils, but this remains to be tested further."
What has been confirmed so far is that the T. rex, which was found in Montana and dates to 68 million years ago, retained medullary bone that reveals the individual was pregnant. Medullary bone is only present in female living dinosaurs, i.e. birds, just before and during egg laying. It's this type of bone that could retain preserved DNA.
Zanno is an assistant research professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University, where she is also head of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' Paleontology Research Lab and is curator of paleontology. She explained that medullary bone lines the marrow cavity of the long bones of birds.
"It's a special tissue that is built up as easily mobilized calcium storage just before egg laying," she said. "The outcome is that birds do not have to pull calcium from the main part of their bones in order to shell eggs, weakening their bones the way crocodiles do."
Crocodiles, she said, are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs.
"Medullary bone is thus present just before and during egg laying, but is entirely gone after the female has finished laying eggs," she said.
Early on, Mary Schweitzer suspected that medullary bone was present in the tyrannosaur remains, and was able to confirm her suspicions after she, Zanno and their team conducted a chemical analysis of the T. rex's femur.
The material, found to be consistent with known medullary tissues from ostriches and chickens, contained karatan sulfate, a substance not present in any other bone types.
"This analysis allows us to determine the gender of this fossil, and gives us a window into the evolution of egg laying in modern birds," Schweitzer said.
T. rex in the wild. A new study may have located T. rex DNA. Credit: iStockPhoto
Zanno explains we now know extinct dinosaurs inherited egg laying from their ancestors, just as birds inherited this reproductive strategy from their dino ancestors.
"The discovery of medullary bone is just one more piece of evidence that blurs the line between birds and other theropod (carnivorous two-legged) dinosaurs like T. rex," she said.
The research is published in Nature Scientific Reports.
In a prior study, Sarah Werning of the University of California and Berkeley and her colleagues found medullary bone in the carnivorous dinosaur Allosaurus as well as in the plant-eating dino Tenontosaurus. The discoveries happened somewhat by chance, as she and the other researchers were studying dinosaur growth rates when they realized three of the dinosaurs were pregnant females.
She said, "We were lucky to find these female fossils. Medullary bone is only around for three to four weeks in females who are reproductively mature, so you'd have to cut up a lot of dinosaur bones to have a good chance of finding this."
Schweitzer agrees, and said that the femur her team studied was already broken when she received it. Echoing Werning, she acknowledged that most paleontologists would not want to cut open, or demineralize, their fossils in order to search for the rare medullary bone.
Nevertheless, because much of the pregnant T. rex's skeleton was found, including her skull, there is a very good chance that the paleontologists will soon be able to provide a detailed description of her overall anatomy and general appearance.
They already know that the dinosaur mom-to-be was 16-20 years old when she died of as of yet unknown causes.
VIEW PHOTOS: Could These 10 Animals Be Resurrected?
New technologies could make it possible to bring extinct species back to life, concludes a paper published on April 4 in the journal Science. These advances include back-breeding (assembling or reassembling an extinct species' genes), cloning and genetic engineering.
A leading candidate for de-extinction is the woolly mammoth. Russian scientist Semyon Grigoriev, of the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum, plans to replace the nuclei of an elephant egg with nuclei extracted from woolly mammoth bone marrow. The elephant would theoretically become a surrogate mother to a baby mammoth.
Tasmanian tigers died out in 1936, in part because they had little genetic diversity which translates to "bad news for a species," said Katherine Belov, professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney. "Species are less able to adapt to change." Even if Tasmanian tigers -- or other animals -- are resurrected, it will take some time to build up diversity again.
Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Wikimedia Commons
Experts believe billions of these birds populated the Americas when Europeans arrived. Loss of habitat and commercial exploitation of the birds for their meat are thought to have killed them all off.
Efforts are now underway to revive the species by extracting DNA fragments from preserved specimens, and later, using band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents.
Joseph Wolf, Wikimedia Commons
The Pyrenean ibex, a horned mammal once common in Europe, was one of the first subspecies targeted for de-extinction. Scientists began the attempts in late 1990s, when the last female Pyrenean ibex was still alive. Even if researchers could successfully clone that individual, there would be no males for her to breed with. Instead, genetic engineering might be required.
Cicero Moraes, Wikimedia Commons
Since saber-toothed cat bodies are sometimes found frozen, it might be possible to extract preserved DNA and clone the animal. About 5 years ago, scientists did just that with a mouse that was dead and frozen for 16 years. Woolly mammoth remains are also sometimes found in a well-preserved, frozen state.
Oxford Museum of Natural History, Wikimedia Commons
The dodo, a flightless bird, proved to be a tasty meal for humans and other predators. In 2007, scientists found a remarkably well-preserved dodo in a cave. Dodo DNA could be used to resurrect this avian species.
University of Texas at Austin, Wikimedia Commons
Ground sloths, relatively slow, lumbering animals, were easy targets for prehistoric big-game hunters. Scientists have found remains that still bear soft tissue. As with woolly mammoths, there's a chance extracted DNA could be used to back-breed or clone the large sloths.
Charles Knight, Wikimedia Commons
The Irish elk has been extinct for 11,000 years. Like the woolly mammoth, it inhabited colder regions. As a result, bodies are sometimes found frozen and in relatively good condition, making them candidates for DNA extraction.
UNiesert, Wikimedia Commons
Earlier this year, Harvard geneticist George Church -- with tongue in cheek -- said that he was seeing an "adventurous female human" to be a surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal. While Church was really just theorizing about what it would take to bring a Neanderthal back to life, the possibility could be a reality, should any scientist undertake such a controversial project.
Paleontologist Jack Horner is leading a project to create a dinosaur out of a chicken -- a "dinochicken." He told Discovery News that birds "are dinosaurs, so technically we're making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur." He and his colleagues have been genetically engineering chickens to reactivate ancestral traits, such as long tails, which are more associated with non-avian dinosaurs.