Bakker blogs: You can’t have a dinosaur as a pet, but you sure can pet a dinosaur!

You know that saying, “You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose”? Well this is like that. Sort of.

We know you can’t actually adopt a dinosaur for a pet, but you can pet a dinosaur at HMNS’ new Hall of Paleontology! Curator Dr. Bob Bakker tells us how (and who) in this latest Bakker blog.

—————

Dinosaur “mummies” conjure up visions of B-movies with Cretaceous monsters wrapped in funereal linen, chasing Brendan Fraser across Egyptian sand dunes.

hall mummy bottom amnh-v
The most famous duck-bill dino mummy is likely the edmontosaur at New York’s American Museum. The “skin” you see is an impression in the rock.

Our new Prehistoric Safari features two dino mummies: our fantastic Triceratops, Lane, and a slab of duck-billed dinosaur we nicknamed “Trigger.” Lane’s perfectly preserved skin is beautiful, but so delicate we can’t let visitors touch it (even the PhDs held their breath when they moved the specimen). But Trigger’s hide is totally petrified and rock-hard, so we want you to pet it.

Go ahead, give Trigger a gentle touch. Lots of folks get goose-bumpy when they run their fingers over the finely textured scales that covered this 4-ton veggie-saur, which chomped down on bushes in Utah some 73 million years ago.

In truth, most “mummified” dinosaurs aren’t exactly mummified in the original sense. True mummies preserve the actual skin and much of the body muscles, which become dehydrated and shrunken around the skull and skeleton.  The Egyptians were masters of religious mummification and devised clever ways to prevent the decay that usually rots out the soft tissue. Nature can mummify human bodies, too — when burials occurred in desert sand. Hot winds suck out the water from the sand and extract the juices from the deceased, leaving a body with leathery skin and desiccated innards.

hall Mum Leo -Poster copy

Dino mummies ≠ Egyptian mummies.

Usually, dinosaur mummies appear as if they have real skin shrunken over their ribcages and faces. But if you look closely, you’ll see that all the skin tissue is actually gone. What’s left is the impression of the skin, preserved in fine-grain sand and mud. What happened is this:

The dinosaur died and dried out. Scavengers were kept away somehow (that’s the tricky part) until sediment buried the carcass. Microbes finally destroyed all the skin tissue, but not before the sediments had been pressed tightly against the body. As the sand and mud hardened, the sediment recorded the impression of the outer skin surface — many “mummies” capture the skin texture with fabulous fidelity.

Lane the Triceratops goes one step better. There are genuine remnants of the original skin material preserved as dark, carbon-rich residue. We’ll do some high tech probing of this stuff to search for organic molecules. (No, we won’t get genetic material, Jurassic Park fans — DNA is too big and complicated to survive more than a few thousand years.)

Our Prehistoric Safari has a fine cast replica of a third dino-mummy, the famous duck-billed Brachylophosaurus named “Leonardo” from Malta, Montana. Leo, as he is known affectionately, has skin impressions over the arms, shins and flank. However, his claim to fame is his innards. The contents of Leo’s stomach and intestines are still there, faithfully recording his last meal. Tiny fragments of Late Cretaceous leaves fill the gastrointestinal tract, and you can see the progress of the digestive cycle.  Leaf bits get smaller passing from the stomach to the lower guts, showing that digestive juices were doing their job of breaking down the food.

Leonardo is the only herbivorous dinosaur specimen which gives us a glimpse into the food-processing organs deep inside the body.

But back to the petting —we have several pettable specimens in the exhibits and on the touch carts. Feel free to stroke bones, teeth, even our wonderful selection of coprolites (though you might want to look that word up).

Your Dino Mummy Questions, Answered

Ed. Note: Leonardo has only been on display in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation for a few weeks – but we’ve already gotten a ton of fascinating questions from visitors. In this post, Dr. Bakker  answers them. If you have a question about Leonardo – or anything on exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science – send it to blogadmin@hmns.org and we’ll post the answer here.

Dinosaur Mummy CSI presents scans of Leonardo that show gut contents and even a possible heart. Does Leonardo have lungs preserved?

There are some curious iron concretions revealed by the x-rays here but nothing definite.

Duck-bill dinosaurs do not have hollowed-out bones of the sort we see in birds and raptors and tyrannosaurs. Therefore we don’t expect that they had the very small lungs and big air chambers in the body cavity characteristic of modern birds.

The lungs would be tucked up high in the chest, covered by rib numbers 3,4,5,6 – if the lungs were like those of birds and crocodiles.

The drawings of Leonardo in the exhibit are very colorful – how do you know what colors dinosaurs had on their skin?

…theoretical stripes.

Think “Okapi.” That’s the giraffe-like thing in wet woodlands today.

Dinosaurs had bird-style eyes, so camouflage had to match habitat colors. Dull browns and greys were not good enough to fool an eagle-eyed gorgosaur.

Early Judithian environs had wet forests with big conifer trees and, in the rainy season, thick underbrush. Dry season would bring browns & rust colors.

So……..Mike Berglund (a dinosaur illustrator) has made a testable theory with his partially banded Brachy. Breaking the profile by having the tail a different color would help flummox predators, who would have a more difficult time seeing the whole body and tail shape. The thick verticals would help the beast blend in among the tree trunks.

How can we test color ideas?  More paleo-environmental research. More thinking about fossil pollen, turtles, crocodiles & salamanders….all witnesses to rainfall, groundwater, and floral geometry.

What animals alive today would be most like Leonardo?

Eland
Creative Commons License photo credit: The Anti-ZIM

The Antelope Family – most diverse family of medium-large planteaters on land today. The Antelope Family includes cows and buffalo, gazelles and oryx, funny-faced hartebeest and gnu, cute duikers and stately eland. Muskoxen and sheep and goats. Antelope supply most of the prey for lions, leopards, cheetah and hyenas.

The Duckbill Family is the most diverse, big-ish plant-eaters in the last part of the dinosaurian age, the Late Cretaceous. The Duckbill Family includes our HMNS Edmontosaurus, and the Trombone Dinosaur, Parasaurolophus (kids’ favorite). And the “Good-Mother” Maiasaura, who left us fossil eggs and nests. Leo’s species, Brachylophosaurus, is a duckbill too. Duckbills supplied most of the prey for all the tyrannosaur meateaters, such as Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurusand the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

The technical name for the Antelope Family is Family Bovidae, or “bovids” for short.

The technical name for the Duck Bill Family is Family Hadrosauridae, or “hadrosaurs” for short.*

Want to learn more about Leonardo and other dinosaurs?
See how we moved the 6-ton fossil into the museum.
See David Temple repairing and gluing a fossil back together.
Draw a dinosaur with Dr. Bakker.