This "Mummified" Dinosaur Was Named After "Ghostbusters"

Since the dawn of paleontology, scientists have struggled to confirm what dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures may have looked like when they were alive. Now, a team at Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada has brought us closer than ever to understanding our massive planetary ancestors. They discovered a dinosaur fossil that has guts, armor, and even some skin intact. In fact, it is so well-preserved, some have dubbed it a "dinosaur mummy." Meet Zuul crurivastator.

A Giant Accident

The discovery of the dino-mummy was purely accidental. On an otherwise-average afternoon in 2011 at Alberta's Millennium Mine, heavy-equipment operator Shawn Funk was manning an excavator when he hit something hard. Funk was used to striking minerals or old marine fossils, but this was different.

Over 7,000 man-hours later, the discovery now lies in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. It's an incredibly well-preserved armored herbivore called a nodosaur (a close relative of ankylosaurs, those spiky armored low-riding lizards with a mace-like tail) that lived 110 million years ago. A team carved through a 15,000-pound rock to dig out the dinosaur's body, from its snout to its hips.

Normally, news of a dinosaur discovery doesn't hit the internet until it's been fully classified and described, but this one was so exciting they just had to rush it to press. After a few months, scientists Victoria Arbour and David Evans completed their analysis and saddled the nodosaur with a fantastic name: Zuul crurivastator. You might recognize "Zuul" as the name of the villain from "Ghostbusters" — and one look at the head reveals why they chose it. "David and I batted around some ideas and I half-jokingly threw up Zuul," Arbour told The Atlantic. "He loved it immediately."

As for the second half of the name, "crurivastator" translates as "Destroyer of Shins," a reference to Zuul's primary defense against meat-eating giants. Not that it was any small potatoes itself. When Zuul was alive, it weighed approximately 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms). It was 18 feet (5.5 meters) long and was outfitted with some serious prehistoric bling: along with bumpy, thorn-like armor, it had 20-inch (50-centimeter) long spikes on either shoulder. While the nodosaur was thought to largely keep to itself in the wild, it could hold its own in battle.

Burial at Sea

So, why was Zuul so intact while with most other fossils paleontologists find are just a few teeth or bones? Scientists believe that after death, it was buried so quickly under the sea that minerals infused its skin and body parts to preserve it. Then, centuries upon centuries of rock and sediment piled up on top.

There's still a lot to be learned from the fossil, but scientists are up for the project of a lifetime: The keratin layers that helped to form its armor are so well-preserved that the museum's curator of dinosaurs, Donald Henderson, called it "the Rosetta Stone of armor."

In an interview with National Geographic, University of Bristol paleobiologist Jakob Vinther was shocked by the quality of the specimen. It was in such good shape, Vinther says it looks like it "might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago ... I've never seen anything like this."

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 6, 2017