Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science, Phillip Manning. National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2007, $28.00, hard-cover; 316 pp. The book is illustrated with sixteen black & white photographs in a central section with a few others scattered elsewhere. There are no Index, Glossary nor Reference sections.
Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs is an engaging story about the discovery, preparation and analysis of what may possibly be the most important dinosaur find in North America. Nicknamed Dakota, this Edmontosaurus from the badlands of North Dakota actually has fossilized skin - not merely impressions of skin - as well as three dimensional preservation of muscle structure and potentially internal organs as well. Manning takes the reader through a paleontological journey in a style that is easy to read and engrossing at the same time. Before beginning this journey though, Manning provides a number of introductory asides.
The first chapter, Death of a Dinosaur, begins with a plausible re-creation of how Dakota met his demise. Of course, part of this story is based upon the paleontological evidence gathered from the excavation and removal of the fossil itself. Following this appetizer on the subject dinosaur, Manning diverts the reader with some basic dinosaur history and education. Included here is a bit of Greek and Roman philosophy followed by early British discoveries in the 19th century. The Linnaean system of classification is presented and applied to Dakota. Basic descriptive information about Edmontosaurus and Hadrosaurs in general concludes the chapter.
Old Fossils and New Tails continues as Manning describes the basics - what are fossils, how are fossils made and what does and does not normally fossilize. He uses this information to help the reader understand just how special Dakota is. To continue demonstrating the rarity of exceptional preservation, some of the world's best Laggerstatten are discussed starting with the Burgess Shale. All of the sites included have fossils with some kind of soft part preservation that has allowed paleontologists to learn more about ancient life than otherwise would have been possible. Perhaps not central to the story at hand but important nonetheless, was Manning's mention of a crocodilian preserved in the Cretaceous Santana Formation of Brazil. This was only one of many exceptional finds at this site but this crocodilian, Araipesuchus gomesii, is also found in Africa and as such, is yet another confirmation of the process of plate tectonics.
This is all fascinating and good introductory material leading up to the story of Dakota. But wait . . . there is yet more in chapter three, Mummy. Dakota has been called a dinosaur mummy but that terminology paints a picture of cloth wrapped Egyptians. A broader definition is needed. Manning begins with the etymology for the word mummy and the history of Egyptian mummy making. He includes interesting accounts of subsequent grave robbing and the manufacture of medicinal mummy powders. Further examples of mummy-like preservation are presented: South American human mummies from the Atacama Desert; various human bog bodies from Europe and Great Britain; Ítzi the iceman from the Alps; Inuit mummies from Greenland; Mammoth and Woolly Rhinoceros mummies from Siberia. Each of the examples given include basic descriptions and what was learned from the analysis of these mummies. The season of death has been revealed in many mummies based upon stomach contents. Some of the human bog mummies have revealed some very gruesome customs including torture and mutilation. Mammoth mummies have revealed the animals' diet and a few very interesting soft tissue features that are not at all like modern elephants.
Manning's next chapter, Dinosaur Mummies, provides background on dinosaur mummies other than Dakota with a review of what has been found and studied in the past. Mummies found by the Sternbergs are the first ones described. The Sternberg family is legend in the annals of fossil collectors. They continue to be well respected by professional paleontologists for the contributions they made to science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you are not familiar with this family, the Sternbergs were commercial collectors; their fossils were collected, sold to and displayed in some of the best museums in the world. The first of the Sternberg mummies was found in 1908. Like Dakota it was an Edmontosaurus. This fossil gave new information about tendons supporting the tail and skin frills and crests not discernable from fossils where only the bones had been found. Interestingly enough, there was an earlier find of an Edmontosaurus mummy by Dr. J. L. Wortman in 1884. Unlike Sternberg's careful work, Wortman knew of the skin preservation but chose to destroy it during excavation to better retrieve the bones! A large collection of Sternberg fossils, including a Hadrosaur with skin impressions, was sold to the British Museum of Natural History. This priceless cargo was lost to the world as the ship that was transporting it to England was sunk in WWI by a German raider. The most recent find, yet another Hadrosaur, discovered in Montana in July of 2000 has remarkable preservation as well and is 90% complete. Nicknamed Leonardo, this Brachylophosaurus has a frill along the back and what may be stomach contents have revealed the type of vegetation extant in the area. This specimen is still being analyzed, so more findings will surely be published in the future.
You may wonder how the Dakota specimen came to be in the hands of Phillip Manning. Manning is a British paleontologist and Dakota is possibly the most important American dinosaur mummy to be found to date. Chapter Five tells Manning's life story including the serendipitous facts surrounding his involvement with the discoverer Tyler Lyson. During Manning's first visit to the site he was able to explore the Hell Creek Badlands and his observations are worth quoting here, "An incredible amount of material was being weathered from the steep buttes, rolling down into washouts, dried stream and river beds. The amount of material destroyed by natural processes must run into millions of tons! . . .Of course, if bones are exposed and not excavated, they soon become casualties to the endless process of earth's natural recycling system" (124).
In acknowledging the contributions of amateur collectors in Chapter Six, Preparing the Campaign, Manning makes some other noteworthy comments: "The acquisition of paleontological specimens from the field is also an important role for museums and universities, but the time and resources required to find, extract, conserve and store specimens are often not available" (133). Manning suggests that the only ethics that need be questioned when a rare fossil is offered for commercial sale should be "restricted to establishing and clarifying a specimen's provenance, authenticity . . . and the legality of ownership" (134). Manning then suggests that, "In such cases [excavation of vertebrate fossils] a museum or university can and should work in partnership with collectors (amateur, professional, or commercial) to retrieve such specimens." And, "The field experience and expertise of collectors should be viewed as a resource and not as a threat to our paleontological heritage" (134).
Finally, Manning gets into the field work and data collection pertinent to Dakota. This fossil provided more problems in removal than most bone-only specimens. With the entire body apparently covered with skin in a possible 3-D envelope, the typical method of separating the body into smaller parts for removal was not desirable. The entire body was jacketed and reinforced in one large block. Only the tail and an arm were separate. The four ton tail and ten ton body block were lifted by a massive front-end loader and transported to a low boy trailer. This was the end of the excavation phase and the beginning of the prep work and data analysis.
Tyler Lyson's organization and crew from the Marmarth Research Foundation coordinated and managed the excavation. The Marmarth Research Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization whose purpose is to promote education, provide curation of fossils and coordinate research with professionals. In addition to the MRF, Peter Larson's Black Hills Institute is involved in some of the prep work on Dakota.
Data collection and analysis was managed by Manning and his UK support team. This work began before the fossil left the ground.
One of the newer hi-tech units to be used in site analysis is called LiDAR. This is laser/computer/GPS based system that provided a complete 3-D map of the excavation and surrounding area. LiDAR was the basis for analyzing the site and ferreting out the paleogeography.
The fact that Dakota's skin was truly fossilized was discovered by Manning using an ESEM (Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope) with an Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis (EDX) tool. The skin is preserved in Siderite, an iron carbonate (FeCO3). These two tools suggested that there was a possibility that original biomolecules may even be preserved.
Much of this work and analysis is in the chapter, The Chemistry of Death, a fascinating look into the world of paleo-forensics. Many questions remain, not the least of which is how did the skin become preserved in Siderite? And then there's the question of the Borealosuchus that is either next to or lodged partially inside the remains of Dakota. It may be found that the association is accidental or that this crocodilian was feeding inside the body cavity of Dakota when they were both buried.
During Dakota's preparation phase it was found that the Siderite preserved skin was quite delicate. Manning halted the mechanical preparation in favor of CT scanning. The only CT scanner large enough for the tail and body blocks was at a facility in California that was used by both NASA and Boeing. Some interesting facts were revealed through the CT scan of the tail. Since the skin is preserved in 3-D it shows how much tissue was present in life and that the tail musculature was more massive than had been previously thought. The tail vertebrae were evenly spaced in life position and indicated a 10 mm thickness for the intervertebral discs. Most dinosaur skeleton mounts show little if any space between the vertebrae for these discs. Adding this thickness to a mount will increase the presumed length of some of the big dinosaurs by a number of feet. Another interesting discovery was that the Hadrosaur tail extended beyond the tail bones themselves. Manning suggests that this fleshy tail plus the added thickness of the intervertebral discs yields Hadrosaur tails a meter longer than previously thought. Manning's group was able to get good scans of the tail section but the body block scans were unsuccessful because of equipment problems. Unfortunately, NASA decided to move this entire facility to Florida before another scanning attempt could be made so this part of the work is yet to be completed. Since the publication of Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs I have heard news reports that new CT scans have shown possible internal organ structure. This discovery was apparently post press time.
Following the end of the CT scan portion of the story, Manning switches to analysis. In these last few chapters the focus switches between Dakota and other dinosaurs. Just as with the CT scan analysis, much of the other work on Dakota remains preliminary. Manning runs through the Jurassic Park gambit and the minimal likelihood of discovering dinosaur DNA. Some of the subsequent testing however, has shown tantalizing evidence for preserved biomolecules and possible proteins. One of the interesting discoveries not related to Dakota concerned a Tyrannosaurus rex coprolite. This particular specimen contained partially digested dinosaur "muscle and connective tissue" (259) giving us insight into the feeding habits and digestive system of this carnivore.
In discussing dinosaur locomotion, Manning offers that dinosaurs may have been able to run faster than presumed. From the Dakota fossil it appears that the muscle mass may be larger than previously estimated. Coupled with the tendon and ligament preservation along the spine, the muscle mass and biomechanics analysis may infer that the Hadrosaur had a considerable spring in his step and a very efficient mode of locomotion. Manning and his team have done considerable computer simulation work and have formulated what they believe is the best program available for discerning dinosaur locomotion. The real test will come when the CT work is complete on Dakota and they can use more accurate muscle mass estimates.
The chapters of Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs ahead of the more specific ones concerning Dakota that I termed "introductory asides" serve an important purpose. At first glance one may think these were filler chapters to make a longer book when only a small amount of information was available about Dakota. However, these chapters provide the non-specialist with a basic background in paleontology. All of these chapters helped to build the background necessary to the understanding of the uniqueness of Dakota and what this one fossil could reveal about the dinosaurs.
Manning's writing style is engaging and his enthusiasm shows through - these traits alone keep the reader absorbed, interested and eager to find out what might be revealed on the next page.
READABILITY - Written for the lay person, high school and up.
ON THE UPSIDE - Fascinating account of the discovery and partial analysis of a unique fossil. Well written in an engaging style that will keep the reader on edge anticipating the next revelation.
ON THE DOWNSIDE - My guess is that Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs was rushed to press to boost book sales with the simultaneous release of the National Geographic TV show covering the story. If this is true, we may have missed out on some the most interesting discoveries that a bit more time could have brought to the book.
OVERALL RATING - I recommend Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs to all dinosaur lovers because of the wealth of information and the insight it can give into paleontology and ancient life on earth.