In recent years, paleontologists have been breaking new ground in what would have been previously considered an impossible source of information in their field: that of soft tissue, recovered from otherwise ancient dinosaur fossils. As this new field of study expands, researchers have announced the discovery of intact blood vessels in a dinosaur fossil, and at 80 million years old, it is the oldest find of it’s kind.
The University of Texas at Austin research team demineralized a fossilized femur from a 30-foot-long duck-billed dinosaur (Brachylophosaurus canadensis), unearthed in Montana in 2007, to uncover the soft tissues that comprised the blood vessels. Using high-resolution mass spectroscopy and a novel protein identification procedure utilizing antibodies, the team confirmed that the tissue was indeed from the original dinosaur that the fossil was formed from, and not contamination from a more recent source, such as bacterial growth.
While still an emerging field of study, the recovery of soft tissue from dinosaur fossils has been in practice for a decade, following the discovery of unfossilzed tissue in a 65-million-year–old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in 2005. This new discovery marks the first find of intact blood vessels in a dinosaur fossil.
"The other major components of the bone from this dinosaur (bone matrix and bone cells) had already been studied, so we began studying the blood vessels in isolation," according to lead researcher Tim Cleland. He says that this new project allows his team "to focus on the vascular proteins that may hold more evolutionary information."