Author Topic: Discovery of Partially Fossilized Dinosaur Horn Prompts Creationism Debate  (Read 1374 times)

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A few miles outside Glendive, Montana, on May 12, 2012, the sun beat down on three researchers as they hammered away at sandstone. They were hunting fossils scattered in the Hell Creek Formation, a geological trove for dinosaur bones. They had no power tools—just chisels, muscle, and the excitement of watching a large triceratops horn emerge inch-by-inch from sediment that swallowed it long ago.

The team spent three hours chipping away the rock. “That wears you out, especially for a bunch of old scientists,” recalled Kevin Anderson, a member of the team and a microbiology professor at Arkansas State University in Beebe, Ark. The Triceratops horridus horn they excavated was 2 feet long and weighed 20 pounds: “We always joked, this would have been the grandpa triceratops.”

After paying the landowner $3,000 for the fossil, the scientists hauled it to their lab to see if it contained any unfossilized soft tissue the ravages of time might have left untouched. After giving the fossil an acid bath that dissolved the hard material, they found—sure enough—soft tissue and structures that appeared to be original dinosaur cells.

In February 2013, Anderson and another member of the dig team, Mark Armitage, a part-time employee at California State University, Northridge, (CSUN) published their discovery in the journal  Acta Histochemica . A few days afterward, CSUN dismissed Armitage from his job in the microscope lab, claiming it had inadequate funding to continue his position.

This isn’t the first time scientists have found soft tissue inside a dinosaur fossil. In 2005, North Carolina State University researcher Mary Schweitzer famously reported her discovery of “transparent, flexible, hollow blood vessels” inside a Tyrannosaurus rex leg bone. Others have found soft tissue inside fossils from a mosasaur (an extinct marine reptile), a Brachylophosaurus (a duck-billed dinosaur), and a Tarbosaurus (a theropod).

Soft tissue has also emerged from triceratops bones, but Anderson and Armitage were the first to report the discovery of soft tissue within a triceratops horn—a structure presumably less likely than bone to preserve original tissue over a long period.

“These are real dinosaur tissues, loaded with real dinosaur cells,” Anderson said. “How is it they were preserved?” He believes the preservation of soft tissue challenges the assumption that the fossil is at least 65 million years old. According to the evolutionary timescale, triceratops lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, which would have spanned 65 to 145 million years ago. “We have biological evidence that it’s not 65 million years,” Anderson said of his discovery.

Other scientists have recognized the quandary created by soft dinosaur tissue. In 2008, some researchers attempted to solve the problem by suggesting the soft tissue was not part of the original dinosaur, but a later “biofilm” formed by bacteria.

Anderson and Armitage explained in their paper why they thought the biofilm theory broke down on consideration. It is unclear, they wrote, “how such biofilm structures could themselves survive the ravages of time, as once produced other microorganisms could begin to digest even these.”

Last year, Schweitzer, who discovered the T. Rex tissue, co-authored a paper in  Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggesting the iron in hemoglobin molecules played a role in preserving the tissue for millions of years by producing a chemical effect similar to formaldehyde. Other than that, the paper admitted, “the persistence of original soft tissues in Mesozoic fossil bone is not explained by current chemical degradation models.”

As a test of the theory, Schweitzer submerged ostrich blood vessels in hemoglobin, and found it preserved them for more than two years.

Anderson says extrapolating a two-year laboratory study to 60 or 80 million years of deep time leaves “a lot of questions” unanswered. He remains unconvinced soft tissues could survive so much longer than the dinosaurs that produced them.
My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me....That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave."
— Stonewall Jackson