This is an extremely rare paleontological discovery: fragments of reptile skin were found in a cave in the United States. They would be almost 300 million years old!
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What did dinosaurs look like? Although the numerous fossilized skeletons give us a good idea of the overall morphology of these animals that lived on Earth for tens of millions of years, their appearance is still very difficult to recognize. Appearance of skin, colors, feathers, etc., it is difficult to give precise information on these points in our representations.
A lack of knowledge largely due to the rarity of epidermal fossils. Certainly skin fragments have been found before, but this type of discovery remains an exception. And the further back we travel, the less likely we are to find such remains in a good state of preservation.
The oldest skin fragment discovered to date
We therefore understand the excitement of paleontologists who, during excavations in a cave in Oklahoma (USA), discovered thin fragments of fossilized skin from the beginning of the Permian. So they would be almost 300 million years old! At that time, there were no dinosaurs and the world was populated mainly by large amphibians, reptiles and mammalian reptiles, the ancestors of future mammals and dinosaurs. Particularly rich and diverse life flourished in the oceans, with numerous molluscs, echinoderms and brachiopods.
The fossilized epidermis found probably belonged to a very old reptile and represents the oldest skin fragments discovered to date. These are 3D casts with fossilized tissue remains. Other fossils identified as Captorhinus aguti were also found in the cave near the skin fragments. However, it is difficult to say whether these skin remains could have belonged to this species of giant lizard or to another species. However, we note the similarity with the skin of current crocodiles.
Preservation thanks to… oil
The fact that these fragile fossilized skins were able to survive for millions of years and reach us is thanks to very special preservation conditions. As the authors of the study published in the journal Current Biology explain, the animals must have fallen into these underground cavities, where they were buried under a layer of very fine clay sediments, which helped slow their decay. The site later became a hydrocarbon reservoir. It is this bath of oil and tar that has allowed the delicate skin fragments to be preserved for so long.