Scientists claim they have found a perfectly preserved dinosaur fossil that was killed when the massive extinct asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago

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The skin of a triceratops, perfectly preserved in this fossil found at the Tanis site, is being filmed by the BBC’s documentary crew.BBC Studios/Eric Burge

  • Several incredibly well-preserved dinosaur fossils were discovered at Tanis, a site in North Dakota.

  • Scientists believe that the dinosaurs died the day a giant asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago.

  • The findings are the work of paleontologist Robert DePalma, who has previously sparked controversy.

Scientists claim to have found a fossil of a dinosaur that was killed the day an extinct asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago.

Scientists say the perfectly preserved leg of a Thescelosaurus dinosaur, complete with scaly skin, can be dated to the mass extinction event due to the presence of debris from the impact, the BBC said.

It is widely believed that when the 7.5-mile-wide asteroid, about the size of Mount Everest, struck the Gulf of Mexico, it wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs on Earth.

An upcoming BBC documentary looks at a slew of fossils found at the Tanis site in North Dakota. It includes the bone of Thescelosaurus seen in a video here, and the skin of a triceratops, pictured above.

Sir David Attenborough looks at the skin of fossilized triceratops through a looking glass

Sir David Attenborough will narrate the upcoming BBC documentary.BBC Studios/Jon Sayer

The site is rich in well-preserved fossils, including fish, a turtle, and even the embryo of a flying pterosaur encased in an egg.

Scientists believe that tiny glass-like particles of molten rock trapped in the gills of fish fossils found at the site were propelled by the asteroid’s explosive impact, the BBC said.

fragments of the meteorite impact can be seen encased in dirt.

Bulbs are seen in sediment.BBC Studios/Ali Pares

“We have so much detail on this site that tells us what happened moment by moment. It’s almost like seeing it play out in the movie,” Robert DePalma, a graduate student from the University of Manchester, UK, who teaches the Tanis leads digging, the BBC told.

Prof Phil Manning, DePalma’s Ph.D. supervisor at Manchester, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program the discovery was “absolutely insane” and something he “never dreamed of in my entire career”.

“The time resolution we can achieve on this site is beyond our wildest dreams. This really shouldn’t exist, and it’s absolutely breathtakingly beautiful,” Manning said.

The documentary, which David Attenborough presents, was filmed over three years and will be released on April 15.

A discovery so ‘fantastic’ it has sparked skepticism

The BBC documentary features Robert DePalma, a relative of film director Brian De Palma, wearing an Indiana Jones-style fedora and brown shirt.

He christened the paleontological site “Tanis,” the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, in the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” according to The New Yorker.

Tanis’s findings and DePalma’s work have sparked controversy over the years.

Robert de Palma, leader of the expedition.

Tanis excavation leader Robert DePalma talks to a colleague.BBC / Tom Traies

The New Yorker first wrote about the Tanis site in 2019 before presenting the findings in a scientific journal.

While paleontologists usually relinquish their rights and management of the fossils to institutions, DePalma, who had accumulated few academic laurels until the site’s discovery, is pushing for contractual clauses that would give him oversight of the specimens. He’s checked how the fossils are presented, according to The New Yorker.

Commenting on the article, Kate Wong, science editor of Scientific American, said: said in a tweet from 2019 that the site’s findings “meet much skepticism from the paleontological community.”

A few peer-reviewed papers have since been published and the BBC said the excavation team is promising more.

The BBC also said it called outside consultants to verify the samples.

Prof Paul Barrett of London’s Natural History Museum looked at the leg and said it was a Thescelosaurus that likely died “more or less instantaneously”.

“It’s from a group where we had no previous data on what its skin looked like, and it shows very convincingly that these animals were very scaly like lizards. They weren’t feathered like their carnivorous contemporaries,” Barrett told the BBC.

However, Professor Steve Brusatte, an outside consultant for the documentary from the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC that he was tentatively skeptical of the dinosaur findings and would like to see the hypotheses subjected to peer review.

“Those fish with the globules in their gills, they’re an absolute calling card for the asteroid. But for some of the other claims — I’d say they have a lot of circumstantial evidence that hasn’t been presented to the jury yet,” he said.

Prof Brusatte said it is possible that some of the animals died before the asteroid strike, but that the impact could have dug them up and then re-buried them.

But in the end, Brussate said the quality of the fossils trumps controversy over the timing of the event.

“But does it even matter for some of these discoveries whether they died the day or years before that? The pterosaur egg with a pterosaur baby in it is super rare; there’s nothing else like this from North America. It should be about the asteroid.”

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