The seductive siren of soft tissue preservation: Ancient dinosaur flesh wasn’t ancient. Or dinosaur flesh.

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An ugly fact killing a beautiful hypothesis
I’m not mentioning any names, and don’t ask me any details. In fact, don’t repeat this story.

Some years ago, when I was a mere graduate student, a fellow student working in an unnamed country in Africa discovered a very very old stone artifact. To this day, this bit of chipped stone debris, representing the activities of an ancient very pre-human hominid, is one of the oldest well dated, in situ objects of its kind known.

The stone had some yeck on it, and for giggles, this stone got passed on to a physicist who had invented a new way of looking at small things. He was going to look at the tool to see what the yeck was. I should point out that this physicist had no knowledge to speak of of either archaeology or geology.

Right away results came back clearly indicating that the yeck was made of apatite. Apatite is, of course, the primary mineral constituent of bone. Was this a piece of ancient bone jammed into the micro-bumpy surface of an ancient stone tool?

~ Repost from one year ago this month ~

My colleague, the student who had found this bone, knew that this was very unlikely. He had reasons to believe that this was not going to go anywhere, and he indicated those reasons to his adviser, a gentleman we shall refer to here as … let’s see … Bruce. Bruce did not want to hear the student’s objections … this was too exciting of a find to not blunder ahead with! Indeed, Bruce gathered up two highly respected level headed experts on related topics (me and someone else) and dragged us over to meet the physicist and get the story straight from him. The five of us sat in the physicist’s office …. The student, we two experts, the physicist, and Bruce …. and heard the story, learned about the technique, reviewed the data, discussed the findings. Then we left.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

On the way back, the other expert knew enough to keep silent. I, however, did not. I said “Bruce, you know, the chances of this apatite being from animal bone are about zero. How much apatite is in the geological formation these artifacts are from, do we know?

That was the last time Bruce would listen to my advice on anything. He begrudgingly let me hang around on the project that I was still working on, but the next iteration of a jointly authored paper that I had worked on (far more than Bruce had) suddenly did not have my name on it any more. I was disinvited to further meetings to discuss the research program. I had become persona non gratis in Bruce’s eyes.

A month later, I was in an unnamed African country …. the same country that these artifacts had been found. I had been sent by Bruce to deliver some stuff (or pick up some stuff, can’t remember) to a particular location where I ran into the gentleman who at the time was probably the most authoritative expert on the geology of the region. When he saw me, he said “SO, what’s this big secret Bruce has … some great find or another?” Not considering what we were doing a particular secret, I said “Oh that. So and so has a stone tool that this and that technique indicates has bits of apatite smeared into it. Bruce is pretty sure it’s bone.”

Mr Famous Geologist laughed and laughed. When he recovered from this bit of news he said what I, by that time, already knew: “Bruce …. he can be a dumb as a sheep. Apatite is the most common mineral in those deposits. Even with a good scrubbing, there’s going to be bits of Apatite on everything.”


An iron oxide framboid cluster (a natural geological thingie) in dinosaur bone. These clusters resemble red blood cells in size and shape, but they are mineralogical, not biological, phenomena. They are found commonly in dinosaur bone.
The moral of the story? Before you invest anything … any. thing. … time, money effort, relationship building, whatever, with anyone working on a science project, make sure the person you are investing in is an actual scientist, and not a dumb sheep.

Now, let us turn our attention to a paper just out, moments ago, in PLoS. This is very simple. Previously, yeck thought to have been original tissue preserved inside dinosaur bones may not be ancient yeck after all. It radiocarbon dates to recent times, and there are perfectly good geological explanations for this yeck.

Back in 2005, research published in Science claimed that blood vessels and blood cells were found inside fossil bone of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

But now, researchers, in the current paper in PLoS, claim that the substance observed inside the dino bones is dried up biofilm. Bioflim is the brown yeck that forms on surfaces under water. Do you have a fish tank? That brown stuff that the snails eat. Since biofilm forms on surfaces, it can actually form the basis of an endocast … a fossil of the inside shape of something. In addition to endocasts, mineralogical accretions can also form inside bone tissues to resemble biological tissues.

According to Thomas Kaye, one of the study’s authors and an associate researcher at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, ”I believed that preserved soft tissues had been found, but I had to change my opinion…. You have to go where the science leads, and the science leads me to believe that this is bacterial biofilm.”

Kaye was not part of the original team to make the claim about preserved dinosaur tissue, but he did get on board with the idea and did some research on it. We don’t know if any graduate students got stomped on for disagreeing with The Man, but we should assume not.


Kaye, T.G., Gaugler, G., Sawlowicz, Z., Stepanova, A. (2008). Dinosaurian Soft Tissues Interpreted as Bacterial Biofilms. PLoS ONE, 3(7), e2808. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002808

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0 thoughts on “The seductive siren of soft tissue preservation: Ancient dinosaur flesh wasn’t ancient. Or dinosaur flesh.

  1. I’m confused – why repost this without the additional comment that the original authors of the paper have produced another one disputing the “biofilm” hypothesis. No idea how good the arguments are, but reposting this without the newer paper just seems either lazy or disingenuous. The relevant post is here at scienceblogs (

  2. What is ‘yeck’? I looked in several dictionaries, including the Oxford, and found no citation for it. Nor was google any help.

  3. Even if it turns out to be biofilm, it’s still an incredible discovery that allows us to see a mirror of dinosaur soft tissue.