An intercontinental collaboration brought about by COVID-19 restrictions has allowed a skin-obsessed paleontologist in Armidale to look into the draws of an Argentinian university.
Dr Phil Bell from the University of New England is an expert in dinosaur skin. He recently worked with Belgian paleontologist Dr Christophe Hendrickx (from the Unidad Ejecutora Lillo in San Miguel de Tucumn in northwest Argentina) to give a makeover to one of the strangest carnivorous dinosaurs ever discovered.
"I've worked with him before, and I've done a lot of work on dinosaur skin for a lot of years, so Christophe contacted me to collaborate on this," Dr Bell said.
"We can't travel at the moment, and we're not out digging or anything like that, so in my experience, there has been a lot more communication between paleontologists across the world sending pictures of specimens and asking to work together."
At the start of the year, the pair started studying the skin of a remarkable fossil discovered in 1984 by celebrated Argentine paleontologist José Bonaparte who named the animal Carnotaurus, which translates as 'carnivorous bull' in reference to its strange skull with large horns.
The skeleton, which comes from Chubut Province of Patagonia, was preserved along with sheets of its scaly hide. Although scientists at the time knew other types of dinosaurs were scaly, Carnotaurus was the first meat-eating dinosaur discovered with skin.
Dr Bell said it was not unusual for a specimen to sit in storage for nearly four decades.
"Dinosaurs go through their five minutes of fame when they are discovered and often get forgotten about, so when Chrisophe and I started looking at a range of different dinosaurs and their fossilised skin, this was one specimen he accessed, and we thought there is a bit more to this than meets the eye," he said.
"It was an exciting discovery in the 1980's, but of course, paleontology has come a long way since then, and our recent study indicates it would have been a very striking looking animal."
Although a number of scientists had looked at the fossilised skin, no one had studied it in detail.
"By looking at the skin from the shoulders, belly, and tail regions, we discovered that the skin of this dinosaur was more diverse than previously thought, consisting of large and randomly distributed conical studs surrounded by a network of small elongated, diamond-shaped or subcircular scales," said Dr Hendrickx, who led the present project.
Unlike more recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs, particularly from China, the 8-meter-long Carnotaurus was entirely scaly, with no evidence of feathers.
As an active predator, the scientists speculate the scales would have been important in regulating the animal's body temperature, as they do in modern reptiles.
Dr Bell pointed out the large studs and small scales of Carnotaurus are reminiscent of the thorny devil lizard found in outback Australia.
"We know that dinosaurs were very visual animals, and in a lot of respects, they are very birdlike," he said.
"Birds dance and display to each other; they pick up coloured things and try to impress their mates. And dinosaurs are no different, and the same goes for things that are not social but territorial like showing off loud colours and showing off the size of your teeth."
Dr Bell has been hooked on dinosaurs since the age of three but became passionate about their skin while doing his Ph.D. and working in Canada.
"As part of my work, I was travelling to different museums around the world looking at bones like any self-respecting paleontologist," Dr Bell said.
"In amongst these skeletons were draws and draws of skin, and at that time, no one really took much notice of dinosaur skin, so here was this whole resource with collections going back for more than 100 years, that no one had really done anything with."
Dr Bell said skin in any animal fulfills a lot of different functions.
"It is the first line of defense against other animals, against bacterial infections and solar radiation - so there was a lot we could do with these draws of skins," he said.
"There is no reason that the things we see in the skin of modern animals we shouldn't be able to see in dinosaurs as well. It is just a matter of looking at them."
Asked why this type of work and study is important, Dr Bell doesn't hesitate to state that it adds to the richness of our understanding of the natural world and where we fit into everything.
"Learning about the past is to learn about the future and where we sit in that," Dr Bell said.
"Dinosaurs were the dominant animal on the planet for 160 million years, which is the longest span of time that anything has ruled the earth.
"So there are a lot of lessons we can learn from them, and it is exciting to be able to bring them back to life in this way and see them as living, breathing animals rather than dead things that are extinct."
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