A mild weather, perfumed sea breeze, forests, open green fields: for as strange as it might sound, this was how Western Canada looked like millions of years ago. Where now there are cultivated areas once there was the sea.

Below: graphic reconstruction of Borealopelta Nodosaurus. Picture by Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia – licenza CC BY-SA 4.0

Approximately 110 millions of years ago, during the Early Cretaceous, a good sample of Nodosaurus eats nearby a river, there where the ferns are more tender and green; all of a sudden the water went up and dragged it away, despite its massive body size of one tonne and a half of weight and 5 m of length (16.4 ft). The steam swallowed it and took it to the sea, where he floated for a few days then sunk all the way to the bottom, where the sand covered it up completely, blocking what remains of the animal for good under all that material. Then the sea pulled back and over the dinosaur layers of rocks started building up.

The State of Alberta in Canada

Above: picture by TUBS via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

But its destiny is not to remain buried there for good

In the state of Alberta in Fort McMurray there was a mine site where it was extracted bitumen from that soil so rich of fossils of seaside plants and animals. On the 21st of March 2011, the worker operating on the excavator must stop the blade as he hit onto something extremely hard that neither him not his boss have ever seen. They understand though that they are in front of something different from common wooden fossils, so they called the management which contacted the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The mining company made their private plane available to take the paleontologist Donald Henderson and the technical expert Darren Tanketo the site.

The extraction of the fossil took time and commitment which lasted 14 days but even more complex was the transportation of the 7 tonnes block which, as soon as it was lifted broke into many pieces. The workers of the mine, along with Tanke and Henderson, wrapped the pieces with chalk and lay them onto clay soaked jute

Sample of Borealopelta markmitchelli – Royal Tyrrell Museum

Above: picture by Etemenanki3 shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The fossil with all the block of rock arrived to the museum, where Mark Mitchell, technical expert on how to free fossils in order to allow its examination, employs 7,000 hours (5 years) to complete his task.

Above: picture by di ケ ラ ト プ ス ユ ウ タ shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

That fossil is a gem: a petrified dinosaur which preserved its shell with its scales and even part of its skin above it. Bones and teeth are the most commonly preserved parts in a fossil while tissues usually disappear. If some small samples of dinosaurs managed to preserve fragments of skin, feathers and more rarely organs, those have arrived all the way to us either flattened in the process of fossilisation or totally dehydrated.

Dorsal view of the Borealopelta

Above: picture by Caleb M. Brown shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 4.0

The sample of Nodosaurus named Borealopelta, does not present any distortion: it maintained exactly the appearance it once had while alive. The remains of skin and scales allowed a study of pigmentation, which informed us of a brown- reddish colour of the animal. Furthermore the distribution of the different tones would allow a camouflage power too. It is weird considering its dimension and its armoured set up, yet that vegetarian dinosaur had to defend itself from predators too.

Front – lateral view of the Borealopelta

Below: image by Etemenanki3 shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

It is not only the armour of the dinosaur to give precious information about the  Borealopelta. The researchers also managed to analyse the content of its stomach where they found a sort of compressed ball formed by leaves, ferns as well as twigs and stems.

This sample named Borealopelta markmitchellii, in honour of the expert who “freed” it, is the fossil of dinosaur of big dimensions amongst the best preserved ones. It certainly tells us more than many others what the present of a far away time hard to imagine was like.

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