Fossils are the key to unlocking Earth’s most fascinating secrets. These prehistoric remnants open a window to the past, giving us a glimpse into an ancient world and its inhabitants. When talking about fossils, most people think of the big dinosaur bones they have seen at the museums. However, fossils come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. They can be a footprint, an insect perfectly preserved in amber, or a leaf imprint on sediment. Each one plays a critical role in uncovering our planet’s evolutionary history. Here, we will take a look at some of the most fascinating fossils that paleontologists have ever discovered.
Back in 2011, a Canadian mine worker accidentally uncovered the fossilized remains of a Borealopelta nodosaur, an armored, herbivorous dinosaur belonging to the ankylosaurian family. The 3,000-pound, 18-foot-long behemoth existed sometime between the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous periods.
Though the fossil was found in Alberta, this species of dinosaur was common throughout today’s Antarctica, Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. In fact, scientists consider it as one of the best and most perfectly-preserved dinosaur specimens ever discovered. Its skull still bears tile-like plates and a gray patina of fossilized skins.
Its sheer size aside, the most distinct feature of the nodosaur is its armor. The bony mosaic covers its back and neck, and gray circles contour the individual scales. What looks like a flawlessly chiseled sculpture is the petrified version of an actual dinosaur. From the fossilized skin on the creature’s skull to the scales on the sole, every minute detail makes the fossil unique and incredible.
Scientists have hypothesized that the dinosaur must have been swept up by a flood, and its dead body then ended up in a river. The belly-up, bloated carcass then floated downriver until it reached the seaway. After staying afloat for a week or more, the carcass must have exploded, leaving it to drop down to the seabed. As its back sank deeper into the muddy floor of the ocean, minerals started infiltrating its skin and armor. For millions of years, rocks kept piling on top of it ensuring that the nodosaur’s shape and form remain intact.
The Egyptian Sahara is among the driest sections of the world, and it receives only a few inches of rainfall every year. It’s the last place where you would expect to find the fossilized remains of an aquatic mammal, but that is precisely what has happened. Some 50 million years back during the Mesozoic Era, this part of the world was covered by the ancient Tethys Sea. Naturally, it housed a thriving ecosystem of all kinds of marine life. However, in the Cretaceous Period, the continent broke apart and created the Atlantic and Indian oceans leaving the Tethys Ocean dry and barren.
The now-exposed ocean bed is a treasure trove of ancient fossils. In 1902, paleontologists first discovered what is now named as the “Valley of the Whales” or “Wadi al-Hitan.” Among the most notable findings were the fossilized bones of a 65-feet-long, 37-million-year-old ancient whale. A distant ancestor of today’s whales, this particular species, known as the Archaeoceti, is now extinct. These ancient whales are the oldest forms of the species ever found. These cetaceans were once land-based creatures that walked on legs. Evolution drove them underwater, but some dolphin and whale species still have phantom hip bones that once attached legs.
Some of the whale skeletons found in the Egyptian desert still have legs with toes! They tell us a story of the whale’s evolutionary past when it was still trying to adjust to life in the ocean. Even though the bones were discovered over a century ago, the authorities did not turn Wadi al-Hitan into a conservation area until the 1980s. Now, the iconic location has been turned into a museum where all the fossils from the area are kept. (1, 2)
Who knew the most vicious predators of ancient Earth also had a softer side? However, that is exactly what the “Big Mamma Brooding” fossil tells us. Unearthed back in 1994 in the Mongolian Gobi Desert, the dinosaur fossil is said to be anywhere between 66 and 83 million years old. It shows a female Citipati warming her eggs just as birds do today. It is an oviraptorid theropod species of dinosaur that existed towards the end of the Cretaceous Period in today’s Mongolia.
When the first oviraptor was found in Mongolia all the way back in 1922, experts named it as “egg thief” because the fossil was discovered near a nest that appeared to have Protoceratops eggs. However, in 1993, an American paleontologist named Mark Norell discovered the fossilized remains of an embryo in a similar egg. He soon realized that it was an oviraptor and that the “egg thief” may have actually been a parent.
The following year, with a sheer stroke of luck, Norrel and his team came upon the “Big Mamma.” The fossilized dinosaur was missing its skull, but the rest of the body was intact. Under its skeletal remnants was an egg nest. The dinosaur is thought to have been incubating her eggs when disaster struck in the form of a mudslide or a sandstorm. This fossil shows just how protective this species of dinosaurs were. (1, 2)
Helicoprion, a prehistoric and extinct species of fish, is the only animal to ever exist with a buzz saw like tooth whorl. Thought to be the distant relative of modern sharks, the Helicoprion lived some 270 million years in the past. It grew up to 25-feet long and was native to the oceans that covered present-day eastern Idaho.
The most striking feature of this species was, of course, it’s lower jaw that was covered in the oddest of teeth formations ever seen in the animal kingdom. Experts say that when attacking its prey, the fish would rotate its sharp tooth whorl backward almost like a buzz saw. It would slash through the prey in a deadly motion.
This particular fossil was uncovered during operations at Soda Springs mines, owned by American agrochemical company, Mosanto. However, Helicoprion fossils have a long history. Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky, a Russian geologist came up with the name in 1899. Even though he realized that the coiled fossil was part of a shark-like fish, he was not certain about where it fit or how it was used.
The breakthrough came in 1950, when Svend Erik Bendix-Almgreen, a Danish palaeontologist, discovered Helicoprion whorl in Idaho’s Waterloo Mine. The fossil was called IMNH 37899 and donated to the Idaho Museum of Natural History. While describing the fossil in 1966, 16 years after it was first discovered, Bendix-Almgreen revealed that 117 visible serrated teeth sit on a 23cm spiral. The fossil also showed some cranial cartilage, proving for the very first time that the specimen came from the Helicoprion’s mouth.
After conducting a careful analysis of the fossil, scientists determined that the tooth whorl served two main functions. The outermost part would act as an anchor when biting. The inner spiral would house the previously used, old teeth from when the fish was younger. The fossil did not bear any signs of wear and tear. That confirmed that the fish mainly hunted soft and chewy marine creatures like squid. (1, 2, 3)
During the 1929 Great Depression, a few unemployed Texans found work as fossil hunters, and they were able to discover thousands of fossil specimens. These prehistoric remnants have been kept and studied at the University of Texas for the last 80 years. After spending decades carefully examining these fossils, researchers have identified a large collection to be from the dig sites close to Beeville. The diverse collection of fauna led them to dub the area as the “Texas Serengeti.”
The extensive collection includes fossilized remains of over 50 animal species including several different types of carnivores, 12 species of horses, camels, antelopes, alligators, rhinos, and elephant-like mammals. The elephant-like animal is said to be an extinct relative of modern elephants, and its lower jaw also resembled a shovel. Researchers have identified it as a new gomphothere genus. The discovery has helped scientists to put together a picture of the ecosystem of ancient Texas.
Though astounding, the fossil collection does not fully represent the biodiversity of the Texas Coastal Plains. These were excavated by amateur fossil hunters who did not have the necessary training in paleontology. That is why most of the specimens are of large mammals since big bones, large skulls, teeth, and tusks are more easily spotted, and they are also more exciting. The fossils of the smaller species may have been left behind. (1, 2)
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