The Atlantic

Bacteria in a Dinosaur Bone Reignite a Heated Debate

The discovery of modern microbes in a deeply buried fossil has complicated an already tangled dispute in paleontology.
Source: Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Around 76 million years ago, a massive herd of the horned dinosaur Centrosaurus died in what is now Alberta, Canada. While they were still alive, these creatures, like all other animals, would have had trillions of microbes living inside their bodies and on their skin. And even now, long after their demise, their remains still harbor life.

Within pieces of fossilized bone from a newly uncovered Centrosaurus, scientists led by Evan Saitta from the Field Museum have found a thriving community of unusual bacteria. These aren’t ancient microbes, but modern ones that infiltrated the fossils and survived on the water and minerals inside them. “The bones provide a refuge,” Saitta says. They are porous, and so “have space for the microbes to proliferate. They’re full of phosphate and iron. They can wick up moisture.”

When animals die, waves of microbes consume their corpses. Scientists” changes over the after an animal perishes. But Saitta’s work suggests that microbes continue to colonize cadavers long after their flesh has decayed, after their bones have turned to stone, and after they’ve been buried several miles deep for millions of years.  

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min read
The College That Became a Prison
As Yankton College’s only full-time employee, Jan Garrity knows how tough running a postsecondary institution can be. There are students to educate and degrees to confer; faculty and staff to hire and pay; a campus to maintain and a mission to uphold
The Atlantic3 min read
Simona Halep’s Dazzling Wimbledon Victory
The 27-year-old Romanian underdog handily defeated the formidable Serena Williams in a final that echoed a classic 2008 match.
The Atlantic4 min read
The Books Briefing: The Dangerous, Enchanting Sea
Herman Melville, born 200 years ago next month, had some timeless advice: If the sweltering heat of July is giving you a damp, drizzly November in your soul, it is high time to get to sea, even if it’s just within the pages of a book. As Lena Lenček