A North Carolina State University graduate student has discovered that a dinosaur egg unearthed more than 30 years ago in Alabama contains well-preserved and incredibly detailed remains of a nearly hatched dinosaur embryo.
James Lamb, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in geology with a concentration in paleontology, says further studies of the embryo could reveal new clues about dinosaurs and about the climate and physical environment they live in.
It is the first dinosaur egg with an embryo ever found in the eastern United States. The embryo is thought to be that of a Lophorhothan, a duck-billed dinosaur known only to have lived in the area now covered by modern-day Alabama. The embryo's leg bones are clearly visible, as is what appears to be fossilized yolk.
Lamb detailed his finding earlier this month in Bozeman, Mont., at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He says it will be several more months before all the embryo's bones are revealed and his research is complete.
The 83-million-year-old egg was originally discovered by three high school students in 1970, but scientists at the time were unable to accurately determine its contents. A research paper published in 1978 could not conclude exactly what type of egg it is.
Lamb discovered that it contained an embryo after he borrowed it from Auburn University for a research project. While studying a part of the egg which previously had been cut away, he noticed three tiny bones. On a subsequent trip to Alabama, he arranged with Dr. Prescott Atkinson, an immunologist at Children's Hospital at University of Alabama at Birmingham, to have CT scans taken of the egg. Atkinson was one of the three students who unearthed the egg back in 1970. The CT scans confirmed the embryo's presence and revealed the orientation of its bones. Lamb then began manually removing them, using a buffered acid bath to dissolve the surrounding rock.
Lamb believes the embryo may yield new information about, among other things, dinosaurs' diets. "If you've got organic material present, which we apparently do in this case, you can apply isotopic techniques to learn about diet," he said. "We know that this guy was a vegetarian, but it's possible that isotopes will tell us if his mother ate ferns, conifers or hardwood vegetation."
Only through an extraordinary set of circumstances did the egg survive, he says, since most dinosaur-age terrestrial deposits in the eastern United States have long since eroded.
Lamb theorizes the egg was washed out to sea during an ancient hurricane. Eventually, the pores that supplied air to the embryo allowed sea water to fill the egg, and it sank, settling into chalk sediments on the ocean floor. Because chalk particles are so tiny, fossils preserved in them reveal much more delicate features than those preserved in grittier sediments. Chalk's alkalinity also helps buffer the fossils against destructive acids.
The egg is believed to be the only one in the world preserved in marine sediments.
Much of NC State's paleontology research focuses on the dinosaurian environment. In studying the egg, Lamb has determined that its home was much like the Outer Banks of North Carolina and that carbon dioxide levels in its atmosphere would have been four times higher than current levels. Such studies can reveal useful information about how higher carbon dioxide levels or global warming can affect our environment today, he says.
Lamb's supervising professor is Dr. Dale Russell, research professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Lamb is one of the department's first two doctoral students in geology with a concentration in paleontology. NC State's program in paleobiology is a partnership with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
When Lamb's research is complete, the egg will be displayed at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences before being returned to the Auburn University Natural History Learning Center.
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