DINOSAURS roamed the Earth for millions of years – until one day, 66 million years ago, an asteroid the size of Mount Everest hit the planet and brought about their almost instant annihilation.
Now a landmark new BBC documentary, Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough, using state-of-the-art special effects to recreate in extraordinary detail, hour by hour, the last 24 hours of the creatures.
Paleontologist and Manchester University graduate Robert DePalma has spent years searching for a prehistoric dinosaur “cemetery” in the hills of North Dakota in the United States.
The fossil site – which he named Tanis after the Egyptian city excavated in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders Of The Lost Ark – is possibly 2,000 miles from where the meteorite hit the Chicxulub Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.
But Robert, who appears to style himself as Indiana Jones, believes the creatures were swept away in a tsunami and then buried in sediment, which explains why they are so well-preserved.
From the embryo of a flying pterosaur in its egg to a dinosaur fossil that may have been killed the day the extinction asteroid hit, we reveal the amazing finds that the team found.
IT is not only the discovery of fossilized animal remains that contributes to our knowledge of the period just before the dinosaurs became extinct.
Beautifully preserved footprints left by the prehistoric creatures are now being excavated by Robert, and they also provide clues.
His team has discovered a number of footprints, including a 30cm long specimen believed to have belonged to a second-billed dinosaur.
Robert says: “They would have been very common in the Cretaceous. They ate the plants in the area and they became very large – 30 feet long.”
One track is particularly well preserved.
Robert says: “You even see a nail imprint on the tips of your toes, so the little toenails dug themselves into the mud.
“I love it here.”
Robert’s prized footprint has three toes and is longer than it is wide, so it probably belongs to a carnivorous dinosaur.
Sir David said: “Hell Creek is known for one carnivore in particular – T-Rex. This footprint is too small for an adult T-Rex, but it is possible that it was made by a young.”
ANOTHER exciting discovery that Robert has made in Tanis is the crown of a tooth.
Sir David explains: “Its shape and jagged edge suggest it comes from an adult T-Rex.”
It was found stuck in the spine of a hadrosaur, a herbivorous dinosaur, proving that it hunted live prey.
Sir David added: “Bite marks found on T-Rex bones show that they also ate other T-Rexes.”
FOSSILIZED turtle impaled by a pole
ROBERT and his team used ultra-cold liquid nitrogen to help free the complete fossil of a turtle.
It’s a cardiac arrest, but the team manages to get the test out in one piece.
Evidence suggests that the turtle was impaled on a tree pole – possibly a tree branch – when the impact of the asteroid caused a tsunami of destruction sweeping across the planet.
THESCELOSAURUS BEN IS BELIEVED KILLED BY ASTEROID
ROBERT and his team face a clockwise race to excavate a mass dinosaur cemetery.
A powerful storm is on its way, and if they do not move fast, precious evidence can be washed away – and lost forever.
After hours of careful work, they are amazed to discover what is believed to be a unique specimen – the fossilized leg of a dinosaur that may have been killed on the fateful day the asteroid struck.
The bone, complete with surviving scaly skin, is later analyzed by Professor Paul Barrett, director of fossil vertebrates at London’s Natural History Museum, who reveals that it belonged to a herbivorous thescelosaurus.
He said: “This looks like an animal whose bone has simply been peeled off really fast. There is no evidence of bone disease, there are no obvious pathologies, there is no trace of the bone being cleaned, such as bite marks or defects.
“It could well be that this was an animal that was there, being overturned, in its death in that river as a result of the asteroid impact.”
SKIN FROM A TRICERATOPS
TRICERATOPS bones are a relatively common discovery at the site of Hell Creek, but restoration of fossilized skin in good condition – as the team finds on a specimen they excavate – is very rare.
Sir David says: “The size and pattern of the scales, together with the age and location of the rocks where it was found, strongly suggest that this was from a triceratops.
“The brown color contains traces of organic material, so it may even be possible to calculate from it which pigments were in it.
“Finding and studying such well-preserved fossils helps paleontologists build a much more detailed picture of how these creatures lived.”
PTEROSAURS were winged creatures that lived among dinosaurs – even though they are not themselves classified as dinosaurs – and became extinct around the same time.
Sir David says: “Male pterosaurs usually had towers, while females did not, so the combs may have been used for courtship.”
And we now have an indication of where female pterosaurs laid their eggs, because evidence suggests that one has laid his in the soft, sandy riverbank at Tanis.
Paleobiologist Dr. Victoria Egerton, a researcher and professor at Manchester University, discovers that the shell is soft, like a turtle’s, and not hard like most dino eggs.
Very little is known about this type of pterosaur, azhdarchid, and Dr. Egerton says of the new discovery: “They were much more reptile than bird-like, and this could potentially tell us more about the environment in which these eggs were laid.”
Sir David adds that the sandy soil at Tanis would have been just soft enough for cubs to dig out.
Robert adds: “This probably had a wingspan of maybe 15 feet. It’s easy to imagine something like that hatching and later fluttering out, almost like a little bat.”
‘COG’ THAT KILLED THE DINOSAURS
SPECIALIST scans back in the UK reveal something remarkable about one of the small ball particles found in some fish gills. It contains iron, chromium and nickel.
Robert says: “The abundance of the three together matches what you would expect to see in a meteorite body. It does not correspond to what you would normally have down here.
“This could be a piece of the Chicxulub asteroid.”
Professor Phil Manning, president of Natural History at Manchester University, adds: “This could be part of the bullet that killed the dinosaurs.”
FISH WHICH ABSORBED COLLECTION OF WRITINGS FROM ASTEROID AND AMBER RESIN
AMONG the thick rock layer at Tanis, Robert and his team find hundreds of fossilized fish whose gills contain tiny clay balls that suggest they died shortly after the asteroid hit.
They are known as ejecta-spherules, and they are formed by rocks that were thrown into the air by the impact of the asteroid before raining down and being trapped inside the fish gills.
Over millions of years, these little molten glass beads have turned to clay, and Robert says, “They give us a fingerprint of where they came from.”
But to find evidence of what happened that day, he must find one that has not turned into clay – so the team looks for a bullet encased in fossil amber.
Sir David says: “Everything covered by the resin would be frozen in an amber time capsule. A sphere preserved in amber could be analyzed to see if it comes from the Chicxulub influence.”
They find two preserved spheres, and analysis conducted by Manchester University professor Manning finds strong evidence that Tanis and Chicxulub are connected.
Robert says, “Once you have that link, and you know what impact that affected Tanis, then you basically know that everything buried in these sediments is associated with the last day of the Cretaceous.”
- Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough airs tonight on BBC1 at 6.30pm.
REAL INDY GRAVER ‘NEW’ DINOSAUR UP
In his battered brown fedora and khaki shirt with a clad dagger hanging in his belt, dinosaur hunter Robert DePalma is every inch of today’s Indiana Jones.
The 40-year-old paleontologist has spent much of his adult life digging for answers to the apocalypse that wiped out prehistoric creatures 66 million years ago.
Born in Florida, DePalma inherited a fascination for bones and teeth from his orthodontist father and older brother Anthony, an orthopedic surgeon and father of the famous film director Brian DePalma.
As a three-year-old, Robert wanted to examine bones left over from family meals. When he got a fragment of dinosaur bone at the age of four, he showed it to Anthony.
“He taught me that all the little bumps and rough spots on a bone had names,” DePalma told the New Yorker. “I was fascinated.”
As a PhD student at the University of Manchester, he began excavating the North Dakota site of Hell Creek in 2012.
Among his incredible finds is a new species of dinosaur – dakotaraptor – and the bones of dinosaurs that perished when a giant asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.
He avoids modern tools and prefers to dig with a bayonet from World War II given to him by his uncle and dental tools donated by his father.
Following his recent discovery at Hell Creek, and his collaboration with David Attenborough, the maverick dinosaur hunter may soon be the subject of his own Hollywood movie.
Time to call Cousin Brian?