Animal fossils usually provide very little opportunity to study the actual animal tissues, because in fossils the animals' living tissues have been largely replaced by minerals. Thus, scientists were very excited recently when it appeared that a 70-million-year-old fossil of Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex), a dinosaur, might still contain remains of the actual tissues of the animal. The discovery was made when researchers deliberately broke open the T. rex’s leg bone, thereby exposing its insides to reveal materials that seem to be remains of blood vessels, red blood cells, and collagen matrix.
First, the breaking of the fossilized leg bone revealed many small branching channels inside, which probably correspond to hollows in the bones where blood vessels were once located. The exciting finding was the presence of a soft, flexible organic substance inside the channels. This soft substance may very well represent the remains of the actual blood vessels of T. rex.
Second, microscopic examination of the various parts of the inner bone revealed the presence of spheres that could be the remains of red blood cells. Tests showed that the spheres contained iron-a material vital to the role of red blood cells in transporting oxygen to tissues. Moreover, the spheres had dark red centers (substances with iron tend to be reddish in color) and were also about the size of red blood cells.
Third, scientists performed a test on the dinosaur leg bone that showed that it contained collagen. Collagen is a fibrous protein that is a main component of living bone tissue, in which it forms a so-called collagen matrix. Collagen (or its chemical derivatives) is exactly the kind of biochemical material that one would expect to find in association with bone tissue.
As much as we would like to have the remains of actual dinosaur tissue, there are sound reasons for being skeptical of the identifications made in the reading.
First, the soft, flexible substance inside the bone channels isn’t necessarily the remains of blood vessels. It is much more likely to be something else. Like what? You might say. Well, long after an organism is died, bacteria sometimes colonize hollows, empty areas in bones, like the channels that once held blood vessels. When bacteria lived inside bones, they often leave behind traces of organic material. What the researchers in the reading are identifying as blood vessels might just be traces of soft and moist residue left by bacteria colonies.
All right. What about the iron-filled spheres? Well, the problem is that scientists found identical reddish spheres in fossils of other animals found in the same place. That includes fossils of primitive animals that did not have any red blood cells when they were alive. Clearly, if these spheres appear in organisms that did not have any red blood cells, then the spheres cannot be the remains of red blood cells. The spheres probably have a very different origin. They are probably just pieces of reddish mineral.
Third, the collagen. The problem is that we have never found collagen in animal remains that are older than one hundred thousand years. Collagen probably cannot last longer than that. Finding collagen from an animal that lived seventy million years ago would really contradict our ideas about how long collagen can last. It is just too improbable. The most likely explanation for the presence of collagen is that it doesn’t come from the T.rex, but from another much more recent source. For example, human skin contains collagen, so the collagen may have come from the skin of the researchers who are handling the bone.