It’s not uncommon for paleontologists to unearth dinosaur fossils in the form of well-preserved bones or tracks, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of well-preserved remnant of a dinosaur’s soft tissue in such fossil findings, be it a trace of muscle or skin.
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Estimations suggest that fewer than 1% of all discovered dinosaur tracks exhibit any traces of soft tissue, and this caveat has made characterizing dinosaurs’ unique physical characteristics particularly challenging for scientists in the field. Fortunately, that may change thanks to an exciting discovery that was only recently made in South Korea.
Reporting in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers with the University of Colorado Denver describe what’s being called the first ‘perfectly preserved’ impression of a dinosaur’s skin in a set of small tracks. Kyung-Soo Kim, Ph.D. from South Korea’s Chinju National University of Education is credited with making the discovery in close proximity of Jinju City.
“These are the first tracks ever found where perfect skin impressions cover the entire surface of every track,” explained Martin Lockley, co-author of the paper. “The tracks were made on a very thin layer of fine mud, rather like a coat of fresh paint only a millimeter thick.”
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A plethora of visible features inside the tracks presented themselves to the researchers, but perhaps one of the most discernable was a small raindrop impression that appeared just underneath the dinosaur’s skin impression. The fact that the rain impression appears underneath the skin impression strongly suggests that the rain transpired before the dinosaur sank its foot into the mud; otherwise, the raindrop would have deformed the skin impression.
Based on the size and shape of the footprints, which barely measured an inch in length, the researchers deduced that they were left by a small theropod dubbed Minisauripus.
Little is known about Minisauripus apart from the fact that it’s one of the smallest-known theropods ever to walk the Earth (hence the ‘mini’ in its name), but these detailed skin impressions will help scientists learn more about the complex anatomy of the creature’s feet.
Preliminary observations involving the impressions indicate that Minisauripus would have sported skin texture akin to that of medium-grade sandpaper and that the patterns align with that of other known theropods. Moreover, the patterns compare with what scientists would expect from the feet of certain types of birds, which further supports the notion that dinosaurs were more bird-like than Hollywood made them out to be in popular films such as Jurassic Park.
Given just how rare these types of well-preserved relics are in the world of paleontology, it’s likely that this particular piece will be passed around from one scientist to the next for the foreseeable future in an effort to bring modern science up to speed. One can only hope that studying the fossil’s details will be a fruitful endeavor.