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Dinosaur Discovery May Provide Wealth of New Information


For many of us, dinosaurs are a source of endless fascination. Scientists have studied them for decades, yet many questions remain unanswered. But as VOA's Ernest Leong reports, an unexpected discovery in Montana may hold the key to such age-old riddles as how they lived, how they died -- and the links they may still have to today's world.

There's something about dinosaurs that brings out the child in us: awe at these huge creatures that roamed our planet millions of years ago. We study and speculate about what they might have looked like and how they would have behaved -- we even make movies about them.

Through the years, what little scientists have deduced about dinosaurs was gleaned almost exclusively from stony fossils -- until now.

Scientists at an archaeological dig in Montana sawed the thighbone of a T-Rex in half, and discovered soft tissue within. Dr. Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosaurs at Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History explains. "Typically, we look at the outside of the bones or we look at the large-scale structure of an animal. But here, we have now the opportunity and ability to look at the microstructure of the animal."

North Carolina State Paleontologist Dr. Mary Higbe Schweitzer adds, "Emerging from the bone tissue itself are transparent, flexible branching structures that look a lot like blood vessels."

An examination of the tissue revealed a close resemblance to blood vessels from ostriches. Many scientists believe birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs.

Jack Horner, a paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies, is hopeful this find will reveal much more. "The most exciting thing is if you have a red blood vessel, blood cell in a blood vessel, is the DNA intact or partially intact."

DNA is the blueprint for all life. Using recovered dinosaur DNA to recreate the prehistoric creatures was the premise of the fictional book and film, "Jurassic Park."

But Drs. Schweitzer and Carrano say life won't imitate art. Dr. Schweitzer says, "No, this does not mean that we are cloning dinosaurs in our lab and we probably will not."

Dr. Carrano adds, "Unfortunately, DNA happens to be a very unstable molecule, and it's well protected within our bodies. But once it's exposed in any way to the environment, it tends to decompose very, very rapidly."

While recovering dinosaur DNA may be improbable, scientists hope to recover intact proteins from the soft tissue. Proteins are less fragile and more abundant than DNA, and may provide clues to the evolutionary relationship of dinosaurs to other animals.

The scientists' findings are in the most recent issue of Science magazine.