In the last days of the dinosaurs before the deadly asteroid

Dinosaurs roamed the earth for millions of years – until one day 66 million years ago an asteroid the size of Mount Everest struck the planet and almost instantly annihilated it.

A groundbreaking new BBC documentary, Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough, uses state-of-the-art special effects to hour-by-hour recreate the creatures’ final 24 hours in exceptional detail.

Paleontologist and Manchester University graduate Robert DePalma has spent years searching a prehistoric dinosaur “graveyard” in the hills of North Dakota in the United States.

The fossil site – which he named Tanis after the Egyptian town excavated in the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark – could be 2,000 miles from where the meteorite struck Mexico’s Chicxulub Yucatán Peninsula.

But Robert, who seems to stylize himself like Indiana Jones, believes the creatures were washed to their deaths in a tsunami and then buried in sediment, which explains why they’re so well preserved.

From the embryo of a flying pterosaur in its egg to a dinosaur fossil that may have been killed on the day of the extinct asteroid’s impact, we unveil the amazing finds the team unearthed.

Dinosaur Footprints

Not only the discovery of petrified animal remains expands our knowledge about the time just before the dinosaurs became extinct.

Beautifully preserved footprints left by the prehistoric creatures are now being unearthed by Robert and also provide clues.

His team has uncovered a number of footprints, including a 30cm-long specimen thought to have belonged to a duck-billed dinosaur.

Illustration of the K/T event at the end of the Cretaceous period.  A six-mile-wide asteroid, or comet, enters Earth's atmosphere as dinosaurs, including T. rex, look on.
Paleontologists may have a clue as to where prehistoric dinosaurs lived before they were wiped out by an asteroid.
Science Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert says: “They would have been very common in the Cretaceous. They ate the plants in the area and they grew very large – 30 feet long.”

One track is particularly well preserved.

Robert says: “You can even see a nail mark on the tips of the toes, so the little toenails dug into the mud.

“I love this one.”

Robert’s prized footprint has three toes and is longer than it is wide, so it likely belongs to a carnivorous dinosaur.

Sir David said: “Hell Creek is best known for one carnivore – T-Rex. This footprint is too small for an adult T. rex, but it’s possible it was from a young one.”

Paleontologist Robert DePalma argues that prehistoric dinosaurs must have died in a tsunami.
Paleontologist Robert DePalma argues that prehistoric dinosaurs must have died in a tsunami.

T-Rex Tooth

Another exciting discovery Robert made in Tanis is the dental crown.

Sir David explains: “Its shape and jagged edge suggest it came from an adult T. rex.”

It was found in the backbone of a hadrosaur, a herbivorous dinosaur, proving it hunted live prey.

Sir David added: “Bite marks found on T. rex bones show that they also ate other T. rexes.”

Fossilized turtle impaled on a stake

Robert and his team used ultra-cold liquid nitrogen to liberate an entire turtle fossil.

It’s a heartbreaking moment, but the team manages to get the specimen out in one piece.

British broadcaster and conservationist David Attenborough.
British broadcaster and conservationist David Attenborough.

Evidence suggests the turtle was impaled on a wooden stake – possibly a branch – when the asteroid’s impact caused a tsunami of destruction that swept across the planet.

Leg of Thescelosaurus believed to have been killed by an asteroid

Robert and his team race against the clock to excavate a mass dinosaur graveyard.

A severe storm is brewing, and if they don’t move quickly, valuable evidence could be washed away – and lost forever.

After hours of painstaking work, they are stunned to discover what is believed to be a unique specimen – the fossilized leg of a dinosaur that may have been killed on that fateful day of the asteroid impact.

The leg, complete with scaly skin, is later analyzed by Professor Paul Barrett, head of Fossil Vertebrates at London’s Natural History Museum, who reveals it belonged to a herbivorous Thescelosaurus.

He said: “It looks like an animal that had its leg ripped off real quick. There is no evidence of disease on the leg, there are no obvious pathologies, there is no trace of the leg being eroded, such as bite marks or missing parts.

“It could well be that this was an animal that was being whirled about in its death throes as a result of the asteroid impact in this river.”

Skin from a Triceratops

Triceratops bones are a fairly common find at the Hell Creek site, but the recovery of fossilized skin in good condition — as the team finds from a specimen they unearth — is very rare.

Sir David says: “The size and pattern of the scales, together with the age and location of the rocks where it was found, strongly suggest that it is a triceratops.”

“The brown paint contains traces of organic material, and it might even be possible to deduce which pigments were contained in it.

Horridus, the world's most complete Triceratops fossil, is during a media preview of
The world’s most complete Triceratops fossil at the Melbourne Museum in Australia.

“Finding and examining such well-preserved fossils helps paleontologists form a much more detailed picture of how these creatures lived.”

Petrified Egg

Pterosaurs were winged creatures that lived among dinosaurs – although they are not classified as dinosaurs themselves – and became extinct around the same time.

Sir David says: “Males pterosaurs usually had crests while females did not, so crests may have been used in courtship.”

And we now have a clue as to where female pterosaurs laid their eggs, as evidence suggests one laid their eggs on the soft, sandy riverbank at Tanis.

A handout illustration shows the newly identified flying reptile, or pterosaur, from the Jurassic period, named
Pterosaurs are not classified as dinosaurs, although they coexist with them.
Natalia Jagielska/Handout via REUTERS

The paleobiologist Dr. Victoria Egerton, a researcher and professor at the University of Manchester, discovers that the shell is soft, like a turtle’s, and not hard like most dino eggs.

Very little is known about this species of pterosaurs, the azhdarchids, and Dr. Egerton says of the new discovery, “They were much more reptilian than bird-like, and this can potentially tell us more about the environment in which these eggs were laid.”

Sir David adds that the sandy soil at Tanis was just soft enough for the hatchlings to dig themselves out.

Adds Robert: “It probably had a wingspan of maybe 15 feet. It’s easy to imagine something like that hatching and later flapping out, almost like a little bat.”

‘bullet’ that killed the dinosaurs

Special scans in the UK show something remarkable about one of the tiny globule particles found in some fish gills. It contains iron, chromium and nickel.

Robert says, “The frequency of the three combined is what you would expect in a meteorite body. This is not what you would normally have down here.

“This could be a piece of the Chicxulub asteroid.”

Professor Phil Manning, Chair of Natural History at the University of Manchester, adds: “This could be a piece of the bullet that killed the dinosaurs.”

Fist that has absorbed asteroid impact debris and amber resin

In the thick layer of rock at Tanis, Robert and his team find hundreds of fossilized fish whose gills contain tiny balls of clay that indicate they died shortly after the asteroid struck.

Known as ejecta globules, they formed from rocks thrown into the air by the asteroid’s impact before raining down and becoming trapped in the fish’s gills.

Chuck Bonner searches a chalk bed near Monument Rocks, Kan., for additional fossilized fish bones belonging to the fish vertebrae shown in the foreground, August 16, 2003.
A man digs up fossilized fish bones August 16, 2003 near Monument Rocks, Kansas.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Over millions of years, these tiny globules of molten glass have turned into clay, and Robert says, “They give us a fingerprint of where they came from.”

But to find evidence of what happened that day, he needs to find one that didn’t turn to clay – so the team searches for an orb trapped in petrified amber.

Sir David says: “Anything covered with the resin would be frozen in an amber time capsule. A sphere preserved in amber could be analyzed to determine if it came from the Chicxulub impact.”

They find two preserved globules and an analysis by Professor Manning of the University of Manchester finds strong evidence that Tanis and Chicxulub are linked.

Robert says, “Once you have that connection and you know what effects affected Tanis, essentially you know that whatever is buried in these sediments is related to the last day of the Cretaceous.”

Dinosaurs: The Last Day with David Attenborough airs tonight at 6.30pm on BBC1.

The real Indy digs up a “new” dinosaur

In his battered brown fedora and khaki shirt with a sheathed dagger hanging from his belt, dinosaur hunter Robert DePalma is the modern day Indiana Jones through and through.

The 40-year-old paleontologist has spent much of his adult life searching for answers about the apocalypse that wiped out prehistoric creatures 66 million years ago.

Born in Florida, DePalma inherited his fascination with bones and teeth from his father, an orthodontist, and great-uncle Anthony, an orthopedic surgeon and father of acclaimed film director Brian DePalma.

As a three-year-old, Robert examined bones left over from family dinners. When he was given a fragment of a dinosaur bone at the age of four, he showed it to Anthony.

“He taught me that all these little knobs and rough spots on a bone have names,” DePalma told the New Yorker. “I was fascinated.”

As a graduate student at the University of Manchester, he began excavating at the Hell Creek site in North Dakota in 2012.

Among his incredible finds are a new species of dinosaur – the Dakotaraptor – and the bones of dinosaurs that died when a giant asteroid impacted what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.

He eschews modern tools, preferring to dig with a WWII bayonet given to him by his uncle and dental tools donated to him by his father.

After his latest finds at Hell Creek and his collaboration with David Attenborough, the unconventional dinosaur hunter could soon be the subject of his own Hollywood film.

Time to call Cousin Brian?

This story originally appeared on The sun and is reproduced here with permission. In the last days of the dinosaurs before the deadly asteroid


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