How Dinosaurs Died: New Evidence in the PBS Documentary

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Thescelosaurus surreptitiously moved along the seashore. Stretching about 12 feet long and weighing about 500 pounds, the heavily muscled dinosaur might have been looking for food — or trying to avoid becoming a meal.

Featuring prominent bony eyebrows and a pointed beak, Thescelosaurus swayed on two legs with the greater part of its body inclined. Forward while the long tail extends back for balance. Suddenly, the dinosaur raised its head and looked around, perturbed as the calm broke a chain of frightening natural forces.

The ground began to shake with intense tremors as the waters in the nearby sea rushed in response. The sky was filled with burning embers, which drifted down and set fire to the lush primeval forest.

Thescelosaurus panicked and looked to escape – but it was too late. Everything changed in a heartbeat as a 30-foot wave of mud and debris came racing down the sea route from the south, destroying life and limbs in the process. The dinosaur fell into a devastating flood, and its leg was torn from the hip by the devastating boom.

That moment — 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, when an Earth-shattering asteroid ended the reign of the dinosaurs — was frozen in time today by a stunning fossil found last year at the Tanis dig site in North Dakota. This perfectly preserved leg clearly shows the skin, muscles, and bones of the three-toed Thescelosaurus.

While the details of the death scenario described above are embellished, they are based on fascinating new findings and calculations by Robert de Palma, the principal paleontologist at Tanis.

“We will never say with 100% certainty that this leg came from an animal that died that day,” the scientist said. “The thing we can do is determine the probability of him dying on the day the meteorite hit. When we look at the preservation of the leg and the skin around the articular bones, we’re talking on the day of the impact or just before that. There was no advanced decay.”

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DePalma and dinosaur leg will appear in Two episodes of “Nova” on TV They will be broadcast live on Wednesdays: “Dinosaur Apocalypse: The New Evidence” and “Dinosaur Apocalypse: The Last Day.” Biologist and natural historian Sir David Attenborough will host the programmes, which have been co-produced with the BBC.

The leg and several other relics discovered at the North Dakota site are the first true fossils to show the death and devastation that occurred when a 10-mile-long space rock struck the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. This impact, 66 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and led to the extinction of 75 percent of animal and plant life on Earth.

At that time, the world was a much warmer place. There were no ice caps, and water levels were higher. The North American continent was divided in two by the Western Inland Sea Route. Tanis is located at the edge of that huge river, which became a channel for carnage after the asteroid impact. Shock waves from nearly 3,000 miles away caused the sea lane to explode with a tsunami of epic proportions.

As de Palma pointed out, Thescelosaurus never got a chance.

“You wouldn’t want to be there that day,” he said. There was a turbulent wall of death heading towards the river. In addition, all these glowing balls are falling from the sky. They are like superheated glass beads entering Earth’s atmosphere after being expelled from the Yucatan crater site. Then there was all this seismic shaking. It really was hell on earth.”

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However, the loss of dinosaurs is a gain for the paleontologist. After the discovery of Tanis in 2008, scientists began to realize that the fossils there may have formed during that highly influential moment. A series of major discoveries have been made, including a dinosaur leg, a pterosaur embryo still in its shell, a turtle pierced by a piece of wood and the well-preserved triceratops skin. Many of these fossils are presented to the public for the first time in PBS documentaries.

Perhaps the most telling was the fossilized fish discovered at the site in 2019, which surprised many scientists. In those fossilized remains, researchers found the embedded evidence they needed to substantiate the claim that the animals died when the asteroid hit: the glass balls, known as projectiles, that fell from the sky on that fateful day.

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“Those were fish that died that day,” de Palma said. “We know that because they have projectiles from impinging on their gills.”

Researchers have discovered countless samples of these glass spheres, all of which contain distinct chemical components typical of a major impact event. Molten glass is made of sand and other terrestrial materials, and was ejected into the atmosphere by the explosion caused by the asteroid’s collision with the planet – an estimated 10 billion atomic bombs. Inside one of these circular craters is a small patch of rock that may have come from the killer asteroid itself.

De Palma, a graduate researcher at the University of Manchester in England and assistant professor of earth sciences at Florida Atlantic University, has led the effort at Tanis since 2012. He and other scientists on the team have published several key papers describing the discoveries and explaining the scientific methodology used to date the fossils. and other evidence.

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DePalma asserts that what happened next is directly relevant to the world today.

I’ve been asked, ‘Why should we care about this?’ Dinosaurs are long gone. “It’s not just for paleo geeks. This applies directly to today. We are witnessing mass deaths of animals and biomes being exposed to very stressful situations all over the world. Looking through this window into the past, we can apply these lessons to today.”

To produce the “Nova” episodes, DePalma worked directly with one of his protagonists – 96-year-old Attenborough – reviewing the discoveries and discussing their significance.

“Sir David and I interacted and consulted about everything,” said de Palma. “It was a wonderful experience. He couldn’t stifle his enthusiasm. When we were looking at the fossils and talking about what they meant, you couldn’t separate us. We kept talking about them. We would have been there all day if no one had stopped us.”

“Dinosaur Apocalypse” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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