Tuesday, February 7, 2012

5 Questions for Phil Bell

Hot on the heels of yesterday's interview with Caleb, here's an interview with Phil Bell of the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative. Phil is a former Currie Lab member who completed his PhD last spring, focusing on the Mongolian and North American hadrosaur Saurolophus. He recently published a paper on skin impressions in Saurolophus. Thanks to David Lloyd of the Tyrrell Museum for the great photos of work at the Dragon's Tomb in 2010!

1. What inspired you to conduct this study?

Actually, it was entirely by accident. Like so many advances in science, it came from an unresolved problem: were these two species of Saurolophus (S. osborni from Alberta and S. angustirostris from Mongolia) actually different or were they the same thing? I was at the American Museum in New York in the process of looking at the bones and skeletons of Saurolophus to try and answer that question. I mean, that’s what you do if you work with dinosaurs, you look at the bones. But I immediately struck upon a load of skin impressions. Like most people before me, I thought “that’s cool” but being the first time I had worked with skin impressions, I took the time to photograph, and draw, and measure the hell out of them. When I got to Mongolia later that year, I had the chance to visit one of the great (but little known) palaeontological treasures of the world, the Dragon’s Tomb (see Q3). This site preserves a herd of ‘mummified’ Saurolophus and you can still find loads there today. It was here that I started to notice differences in the skin impressions between the two species and from there I began my search for more specimens with skin impressions that have been stashed in museums from Mongolia, Poland, to Russia.

Phil with a block of Saurolophus at the Dragon's Tomb, Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2010.

2. Who is Saurolophus?

Saurolophus is a hadrosaur or duck-billed dinosaur. Like it’s more famous cousin, Parasaurolophus (which actually means, ‘like Saurolophus’), it had a rod-like crest sticking out of the back of its skull, but unlike Parasaurolophus, this crest was solid. There are two species: Saurolophus osborni from Alberta grew to around 10 m in length, whereas the Mongolian Saurolophus angustirostris was a giant growing to 12 m in length.

Phil at the Paleontological Institute in Moscow in 2010.

3. What is the Dragon’s Tomb?

The Dragon’s Tomb is the name given to a site discovered by Russian palaeontologists (well, actually, it was one of their drivers who found it) in 1947 in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. When they arrived, they found not just one but six or seven Saurolophus skeletons lying on a rocky ledge, most with skin impressions. The Russian’s named it the Dragon’s Tomb for obvious reasons and since then many more Saurolophus skeletons have been found there. Unfortunately though, fossil poachers have also relocated the spot and have caused irreparable damage by using dynamite to blast out skulls and skeletons to sell on the black market. But the place is so rich you can still find great stuff there. I’m involved in a project with Michael Ryan (Cleveland Museum) and David Evans (Royal Ontario Museum) to further explore this site and to figure out why exactly tens of Saurolophus died there.

The Dragon's Tomb, Gobi Desert, Mongolia, in 2010.

4. What is special about the skin of Saurolophus?

Well, for the moment it’s the most complex scale pattern ever seen in a dinosaur. People have known of dinosaur ‘mummies’ for 100 years (actually, last year was the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the first, and in my opinion the best ‘mummy’ ever found; that of Edmontosaurus now on display in New York) but the complexity of their scale patterns has not been really appreciated until now. The stripy pattern on the tail of S. angustirostris was a complete surprise – one that I didn’t even believe when I first saw it. I thought it was a trick of the light or something to do with how the animal was preserved. But when I started to see it on more and more specimens, there was no denying it.
Preparing latex molds of skin. Fittingly, the latex brand is called "Dragon Skin".

5. Can different scale patterns tell us anything about the colour or colour pattern of Saurolophus?

That’s always a tricky question but without the actual colour preserved (as some people have shown with fossilized proteins that produce pigment) we can never be certain. One way of testing that question is to look at modern animals with scales (crocs, lizards, snakes). If you look closely at any of these animals you will notice that not all scales are born equal – some are big, some are small, some are long, circular or hexagonal. And they all have a function of some kind. Take a snake for example; most of the scales along its back are diamond-shaped and coloured in some way. But look at its underside and the scales are really wide, spanning the entire width of the animal, which they use to grip the ground when they’re on the move. They’re also usually a different colour to the top side. So, different shape, different function, and different colour. I’m not saying this is the way it always is but it’s a pretty compelling notion wouldn’t you say?

Thanks very much, Phil!

You can read the original paper here:

And also see "Saurolophus skin suggests speciation" at Superoceras, and "Judging a dinosaur by its cover" at Dinosaur Tracking, for more coverage of this paper.


  1. Very cool - this is a prime example why it is important to see the real specimens, to photograph, measure and "really look at" them (i.e., not just glance, snap pictures, run).

    As much as I am a proponent of using digital files, you need to base your work with them on the real fossils. I Phil hadn't taken care to study the skin in detail, he might not have noticed anything weird, and we might not know about the species difference at all!

  2. He didn't mention the Dragon's Tomb is at Altan Ula II, no doubt because very few are familiar with such things. So why did many S. angustirostris die there? Drought probably.