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News about Scipionyx samniticus, a uniquely complete theropod dinosaur fossil.

The cover of Nature featuring a photo of the fossil. Copyright Nature -- The Weekly Journal of Science.

Below article from The New York Times reprinted for fair use purposes only -- copyright acknowledged.

This Megalania page has been visited times since March 26, 1998.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

The New York Times

March 26, 1998, Thursday, Late Edition - Final

Section A; Page 24; Column 2; National Desk

Fossil Reveals a 113-Million-Year-Old Secret: the Inside Story of Dinosaurs


The fossil of a baby dinosaur has come to light in which details of soft anatomy never seen before in any dinosaur are preserved. Scientists expect the fossil, which was found in Italy, to yield important information about the anatomy of dinosaurs in general.

Only very rarely are the fragmentary remains of soft tissue found in dinosaur fossils, and it is all the more remarkable that in this specimen, major portions of the animal's intestines, colon, liver, muscles, windpipe and other parts are discernible. The find is reported in today's issue of the journal Nature, which devoted its cover to a color photograph of the fossil.

Dr. Michael J. Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, England, who is familiar with the fossil, said in an interview that the position of the dinosaur's liver might be particularly important.

"The lungs are not preserved," Dr. Benton said, "but the position of the liver may help define where the lungs were in this animal. The primitive respiratory system of present-day crocodiles differs significantly from that of birds, which have a much more efficient system. This Italian fossil might give an indication of whether the dinosaur's breathing system was closer to that of crocodiles or birds, a question that bears on the controversy over the kinship of dinosaurs. "

Many biologists regard birds as the descendants of dinosaurs, but others believe birds and dinosaurs evolved separately from some distant common ancestor.

Life restoration of Scipionyx samniticus as it may have appeared as a hatchling.

"This animal's gut was shorter than might have been expected, so it probably was able to process food very efficiently," Dr. Benton said.

The fossil was discovered and excavated a decade ago but only recently was it examined by qualified paleontologists who recognized its great importance. It is believed to be the only dinosaur ever found in Italy.

The two paleontologists who separated the fossil from rock, examined it in detail and wrote its formal scientific description for today's article in Nature, are Cristiano dal Sasso of the Museo Civico di Storia in Milan and Marco Signore of the Universita degli Studi di Napoli in Naples.

"This little dinosaur was found about a decade ago by an amateur named Giovanni Todesco," Mr. Signore said in an interview. "He thought it was a bird, and only years later, after he had seen the movie 'Jurassic Park,' did he take it to a museum for a professional examination. News of the discovery of the dinosaur was briefly reported in 1993, but it was not realized at the time that this fossil is absolutely unique."

The nine-inch-long fossil, which is now housed at the Archeological Administration in Salerno, was found about 30 miles northeast of Naples in the Pietraroia limestone formation in Benevento province. This formation has been known since the 18th century for its unusually well-preserved fossil fishes.

About 113 million years ago, during the mid-Cretaceous period, the area was covered with shallow lagoons that were often deficient in oxygen, Mr. Signore said, and the fine limestone deposited in these lagoons frequently led to exceptional preservation of fossilized soft tissue of fishes.

The little dinosaur's jaws are lined with sharp teeth, and it belongs to the dinosaur group called theropods ("beast feet"), which also include Tyrannosaurus rex and many other meat eaters. The Italian scientists named the new dinosaur Scipionyx samniticus in honor of Scipione Breislak, the geologist who wrote the first scientific description of the limestone formation in which the fossil was found, and also to celebrate the ancient Roman general Scipio Africanus. (Samnium is the ancient name of the region that includes Benevento province.)

Mr. Dal Sasso and Mr. Signore concluded that scipionyx had hatched from an egg only a short time before dying; all its teeth were original and none had yet been replaced.

The scientists found a mixture of features in scipionyx that made the creature somewhat difficult to classify. It has some of the features of the dromeosaurs -- small and medium-size dinosaurs with daggerlike claws -- a group that included the ferocious velociraptors depicted in "Jurassic Park."

But scipionyx, they found, also bears some resemblances to the dinosaurs known as troodonts: flesh-eating dinosaurs that some scientists say may have been unusually intelligent.

A remarkable feature of the scipionyx fossil, Dr. Benton said, is that the part believed to be its fossilized liver is faintly tinted a dark purple, a coloring that may have survived from life.

"The animal's fossilized gut is also amazing," Dr. Benton said. "You can clearly see its surface texture, which is lumpy and shiny, almost as you would see it after dissecting a modern animal."

Dinosaur fossils generally consist purely of mineralized bone, Dr. Benton said, but occasionally the texture of skin patterns is preserved. (The American Museum of Natural History in New York displays a mummified hadrosaur fossil in which such patterns are visible.) Small, bony scutes -- "the equivalent of chain mail armor," Dr. Benton called them -- are also sometimes found within fossilized skin.

"Only in two or three cases, one in a dinosaur found in China and another in Spain, have remnants of fossilized internal organs been found," he said, "so scipionyx is really something special."

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