Animals

Foot of Flesh-Eating Dinosaur Found on UK Beach

It pays to look down at the beach. A university student was doing just that when he discovered the missing foot of the oldest known Jurassic dinosaur in the U.K. Continue reading →

The missing clawed foot of a 200-million-year-old cousin of T. rex was recently found on a beach in Wales, according to multiple media reports.

Paleontologists believe the foot belongs to a new dino, dubbed "Welsh Dragon," which is the oldest Jurassic dinosaur ever found in the U.K. Based on the foot and other previously excavated remains, the dino was about 20 inches tall when it died, so it's also one of the smallest.

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The student who discovered the foot, Sam Davies of the University of Portsmouth, told Wales Online, "It was pure luck that I found it."

The discovery occurred on a beach at Lavernock, Vale of Glamorgan, in Wales.

"It was my first day of doing field work for my third year project, and I was just wandering up and down the beach looking for fossils," Davies said. "It was just sitting on top of a piece of rock. It was obvious the fossil was fingers or toes, because there were three in a row, but the first thing that came to mind was that it was some sort of plesiosaur."

Paleontologist David Martill of the University of Portsmouth confirmed that it was not part of a plesiosaur, but instead was the long-lost foot of Welsh Dragon, a dinosaur that was partially recovered last year by brothers Robert and Nick Hanigan.

Like Davies, the brothers were fossil hunting at the very same beach when they found some fossilized bones.

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Explaining why they were at this particular beach, Nick said that about 3 years ago he "found an ichthyosaur skull and my brother Robert was looking for the rest of the ichthyosaur."

Robert continued the story from there: "I was looking for fossils out at the low tide mark, and I was just on my way back to the car. I thought I'd have a look around here in a recent rock fall that had happened. While looking through the rocks, I just noticed a few small bits of what I thought were bone, so I picked up some blocks and took them back to the car."

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Suspecting the bones were important, the brothers brought the fossils to paleontologists for evaluation. The remains were identified as belonging to a carnivorous dinosaur that was an early cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. Welsh Dragon lived some 130 million years before T. rex emerged. The fossils are now at National Museum Cardiff.

According to the museum, the new dinosaur hunted small mammals, lizards and other reptiles. Crocodiles thrived in its ecosystem.

Welsh Dragon walked on two legs and had a long tail. It was a warm-blooded animal, and much of its body was probably covered in feathery down with quills along its back.

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While the circumstances surrounding the dino's death are unknown, the scientists believe Welsh Dragon died while young, with its body washing out to sea before settling on the seabed. There, it fossilized with marine sediment and the remains of other small species, such as sea urchins and small fish.

Many of these creatures are now entombed within a cliff edge towering near the Welsh beach. As the edge gradually crumbles away over time, its fossil treasures either wind up on the beach, or are revealed in the edge itself.

Martill is hopeful that Welsh Dragon, now reunited with its missing claws and foot bones, "will help us chart the evolution of dinosaur feet, specifically looking at the number of toes and the nature of the ankle bone."

Visitors to National Museum Cardiff can study the dinosaur too, since its remains are on public display there until Aug. 31. Admission is free.

Illustration: "Welsh Dragon," a new carnivorous dinosaur from Wales. Credit: Nicholls 2015, National Museum Cardiff

Red blood cells and bone collagen fibers have just been recovered from 75-million-year-old dinosaur fossils. The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that organic protein molecules remain intact for far longer than anyone had ever imagined. "We have several indications that the structures we found are consistent with red blood cells and collagen," lead author Sergio Bertazzo of Imperial College London's Department of Materials told Discovery News. The term "organic" in this instance is used in reference to a material, mainly composed of carbon, which is not the mineral present in the fossil.

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For the study, the scientists applied extremely high magnification from electron microscopy and a tool called a "focused ion beam" to probe the fossils. The remains came from eight dinosaur bones that were not particularly well preserved. Some of the remains belonged to Chasmosaurus, a plant-eating, four-legged dinosaur with a head frill and horns.

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Meat-eating dinosaurs were studied too, such as this claw from a carnivorous dinosaur that once roamed what is now Alberta, Canada. So far, the researchers have not detected DNA in the discovered cells. "We have found no evidence for DNA in the red blood cells we have found," co-author Susannah Maidment of Imperial College London's Department of Earth Science and Engineering told Discovery News. She added, "I think it would be unwise to say, "No, we'll never find DNA," because who knows what we might find in the future? Increasingly, studies like ours are showing that original components can be preserved in fossils. So maybe."

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Prior research concluded that protein molecules decay in relatively short periods of time and cannot be preserved for longer than 4 million years. The new study clearly challenges that theory. What's more, the fossils the researchers studied were only in average condition, not having been pristinely preserved. Fossils such as the ones studied by Bertazzo in this image, and the ones museum goers see on display, could therefore still retain preserved organic remains too. In short, the presence of cells from soft tissues in dinosaur fossils could be much more common than previously thought.

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The size, arrangement and structure of the fibers seen in this image -- taken of one of the dinosaur fossils -- are consistent with collagen from bone, according to the researchers. Collagen is the main structural protein found in animal connective tissues. Mature bone (and in this case, that's an understatement!) is composed of proteins and minerals. Approximately 30 percent of any bone is composed of organic compounds, of which 90–95 percent is collagen.

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Most of the fossils studied by the scientists came from lower body parts, such as ribs and toe bones, and not the head area. This skull, held by Maidment, is a lasting reminder of what one of the dinosaurs looked like, however. The researchers took care to determine that the preserved cells did not come from another more modern species. The discovered red blood cells were comparable to those of living birds, such as emus, which the scientists also studied for comparison. Like the detected dino cells, "bird red blood cells are also oval and contain nuclei," Bertazzo explained, adding that "mammals are the only animals whose red blood cells do not contain nuclei, thus we can rule out contamination from a human." He continued, "The main difference between the dinosaur cells and those of birds is that the dinosaur cells seem to be quite a bit smaller. However, this is not surprising since they have been buried for 75 million years and have likely shrunk." He further added that blood cells size is extremely variable within different species.

This photo includes notes on the bottom, showing just some of the techniques the researchers employed in order to see and understand the fossils' internal composition. The green coloration corresponds to denser materials, while the red coloration picks up less dense materials, including the identified cells. Mary Higby Schweitzer is a paleontologist at North Carolina State University who is famous for leading teams that previously discovered blood cells in dinosaur fossils. She also later discovered soft tissue remains in

T. rex

fossils. Schweitzer told Discovery News that the new findings confirm "our own contention that this type of preservation is more common than previously allowed, and that we should put a lot more effort into mining fossils for the information they contain." She continued that the paper is important "in showing what happens when you really look at ancient bone and are not bound by the expectation that nothing could possibly persist." Higby Schweitzer concluded, "If you don't look, you won't find. But if you do, you never know."

There is now tremendous hope that continued research on organic material in dinosaur fossils could lead to a better understanding of these still mysterious prehistoric animals. Maidment said, "The next questions we need to answer are how and why are these cells preserved, how far back in time does this style of preservation extend, and is it restricted to particular rock types and burial environments, or is it widespread in the geological record?" Ongoing mysteries that could be solved include resolving the debate on whether or not dinosaurs were warm or cold-blooded. It's even possible that some dinosaurs were ectothermic (cold blooded) while others evolved to become endothermic later, since today's birds are warm blooded. Bertazzo said, "If we could find red blood cells in many different types of dinosaurs, we might be able to look at the range of cell sizes and establish which dinosaurs had the fastest metabolism."