Most of what we know about the lives and deaths of dinosaurs comes from their fossilized bones. Since the 19th century, and likely since prehistoric times, we’ve been fascinated by these undeniable relics from the distant past. Maybe because we are supported by our own osteological superstructure, growing inside us at the very moment our eyes scan these words. Our bones are our link to every vertebrate that has ever existed–no offense, invertebrates, but many of you have tough shells that are even more durable than our bones!
So what is our fascination with dinosaur bones? The curiosity may rest with bones being synonymous with death. For centuries Death, personified, is skeletal. We often only see bones when we see carcasses or when we dissect our meat before eating. This union of calcium and collagen is both a token of oblivion and the monument to life.
If you want to be fossilized, you have to be buried in the right place at the right time. Being covered over quick is best, preferably by something like mud or sand that will be compacted and turn to stone. The other layers of earth around you may buckle and shift, but under the ground your bones will be relatively safe from the elements. If your skeleton is turned to stone itself, with minerals replacing much of its structure, you’re in great shape for preservation.
What about those news stories about soft tissue surviving from the Mesozoic? Could Jurassic Park be possible? Sorry to be a downer, but probably not. The fragmentary tissue that has survived has been preserved and protected by iron. It’s not suitable for keeping DNA intact. It’s much too old. And yes, it’s exciting that some scraps of tissue might make it through to our era, but it’s a curiosity more than a tool for de-extinction. Yet, these tantalizing clues provide further inquiry into how fossilization occurs.
We have dinosaur trackways, trace fossils of all kinds, feathers and scales, and even a few dinosaur “mummies,” but most of our connection with the greatest creatures to ever live on land is through their biologic architecture. From there, our imaginations take over.