Introducing Leonardo: Most well-preserved dinosaur in the world resides at Indy museum

2014-02-23T07:00:00Z Introducing Leonardo: Most well-preserved dinosaur in the world resides at Indy museumCarrie Steinweg Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
February 23, 2014 7:00 am  • 

What kid isn’t fascinated with dinosaurs? We see them in movies and books and play with miniature versions, but how often are we exposed to true specimens of these massive creatures that once roamed the earth? If you’re lucky, you’ve paid a visit to the Field Museum in Chicago to see Sue, the fossilized T-Rex skeleton, and gotten a true sense of scale to help you visualize how great dinosaurs were in terms of size.

Now, there’s an opportunity not too far from home to see the most complete and best preserved dinosaur remains in the world, with 90 percent of the body covered with fossilized soft-tissue. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis acquired “Leonardo,” a juvenile Brachylophosaurus canadensis (a type of Hadrosaur dinosaur) discovered in Montana in 2000 on long-term loan and added him to their exhibits this past fall.

“We are thrilled to be able to share such a rare specimen with our visitors,” said Dr. Jeffrey H. Patchen, president and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. “We continually search for high-quality, scientific specimens to augment our collection and enrich the lives of children and families who visit the museum. Leonardo is one of the most extraordinary paleontological discoveries in the world, and it is our hope he will not only provide new insight into what sustained these creatures millions of years ago but that he will inspire our visitors to learn more about dinosaurs and potentially become paleontologists themselves one day.”

Hadrosaur dinosaurs were more commonly known as “duckbills” and were herbivores. They lived in Montana and Alberta, Canada about 77 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. The meaning of Brachylophosaurus, Leonardo’s species, is “small crested lizard.”

Because Leonardo is so amazingly well-preserved, they are able to tell a lot about how he lived. Experts believe he most likely was buried along the shore during flooding of the Western Interior Seaway that existed then. Based on size, he is estimated to have been about 4-years-old at the time of death. He measured just 23-foot long, whereas a full-grown male would have grown to nearly 40-feet.

His thin front legs, strong back legs and sharp beak would have aided him in grasping leaves from trees. The textured skin patterns indicate that he’s walked through tough terrain and done it on all four legs. Tissue parts and scales being present on recovered dinosaurs is extremely rare, accounting for less than 1/10th of one percent excavated. Experts have been able to learn new things about digestion and even tell what plants he had eaten for his final meals.

While, Sue, the Field Museum’s resident T-Rex was named after Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered her, Leonardo’s name was taken from scrawlings of a on a nearby rock.

Once he was excavated in 2001 from the Judith River Formation of Montana, near Malta, researches were able to get a unique look at the skin, scales, foot pads and stomach contents of Leonardo in a way that has never been seen before. For the past several years, Leonardo has resided in the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station, one of 14 facilities along the Montana Dinosaur Trail.

“The head is twisted around and the skull and jaws are nearly perfect, just beautiful things. And a natural sharp curvature in the neck, like an antelope would have today, Leonardo then captured digitally reveals a beautiful, elegant, complicated design for walking and running, for dancing and for feeding,” said Robert Baker, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Houston Museum of Natural Sciences in an interview with CMI staff.

Baker added that “Leonardo and only Leonardo allows us to test the single greatest theory in dinosaur science, and the theory goes like this: when duckbills and their kin were first discovered way back in 1822, scientists looked at the jaws and the teeth and went ‘wow, that’s not a lizard jaw, those are not lizard teeth.’ Plant eating lizards have simple teeth. They’ll cut a leaf once or twice, swallow big bits. Big bits are slow to digest and a hot blooded animal like a zebra or elephant, an ox, has teeth that are very big, very complicated and they pulverize the leaf and chop it up. It’s a cranial Cuisanart. So, when the first jaw of a duckbill like Leonardo was discovered, they looked at the jaws and teeth and said ‘that’s not a lizard. That’s not a cold blooded vegetarian. That looks like a cow, or a buffalo.”

Leonardo’s arrival at the museum coincides with the 10th birthday of Dinosphere, a $25 million exhibit full of interactive displays to introduce children to the science behind dinosaur discovery and research. Several special events will take place in late March to celebrate the occasion.

The museum offers summer dinosaur digs in South Dakota for budding paleontologists. Unfortunately, the family dig for 2014 is sold out. There are still openings for the adult dig. More information is available at childrensmuseum.org/adult-dino-digs.

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