David Attenborough examines fossilized dinosaur leg
The Chicxulub crater sits on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, and is one of the world’s largest confirmed impact structures. It is believed to be the site where a giant asteroid fell and wiped out the dinosaurs. Researchers have generally agreed that the impactor—the asteroid—was around 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in diameter.
This was large enough that, if set at sea level, it would have ejected material more than twice as tall as Mount Everest.
So powerful was the Chicxulub impactor that it rearranged the balance of Earth’s biosphere.
But experts have been divided about whether the dinosaurs’ demise actually came as a result of an asteroid strike.
And, until now, no sign of dinosaur fossils that can be dated from the time of impact had been found.
Science: The find is the first of its kind and could change the story of the dinosaurs
Yucatán: The asteroid hits just off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico
But, in April, both asteroid fragments and the first dinosaur fossils from the impact 66 million years ago were discovered at a dig site in North Dakota.
Robert DePalma, a palaeontologist, unearthed the breakthrough find: potentially the first piece of physical evidence that the ancient reptiles were wiped out by an asteroid strike which ended the Cretaceous period.
Along with the asteroid fragments and fossils, a rare pterosaur egg was found.
And, much to the delight of researchers, inside the egg were the fossilized bones of a baby pterosaur.
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Dinosaur: One of the researchers involved with the project examines the fossilized leg remains
A preserved burrow — likely made by an early mammal — was also found, alongside a fossilized turtle that was skewered by a wooden stake, and a preserved Triceratops skin.
It is extremely rare to find fossils that are within even the final few thousand years of the age of dinosaurs, highlighting the importance of the discoveries.
Mr DePalma, speaking to BBC Science Focus magazine, said: “This is the most incredible thing that we could possibly imagine here, the best-case scenario.
“The one thing that we always wanted to find on this site and here we’ve got it.”
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Ancient history: The fossilized leg in question
David Attenborough: The naturalist appeared in a documentary exploring the discovery
A documentary voiced-over by David Attenborough later aired on the BBC and followed the discoveries.
Footage showed the researchers unearthing the major discoveries as well as exploring the area around the dig site.
It includes the moment the team discovers the leg of a small herbivorous Thescelosaurus – a dinosaur that may have witnessed the asteroid impact.
Phillip Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester, who appears in the program told the Today program that it was an “absolutely bonkers” find.
Chicxulub impact crater: The location where researchers believe the asteroid struck
He said: “The time resolution we can achieve at this site is beyond our wildest dreams.
“This really shouldn’t exist and it’s absolutely gobsmackingly beautiful.
“I never dreamed in all my career that I would get to look at something a) so time-constrained; and b) so beautiful, and also tells such a wonderful story.”
He said the team had also discovered the remains of fish that had breathed in impact debris from the asteroid strike, which occurred 1,864 miles (3,000km) away in the Gulf of Mexico.
Prehistory: One of the scientists involved said the discovery was ‘absolutely bonkers’
That, and the presence of other debris that rained down for a specific period immediately after the asteroid strike, allowed them to date the site highly accurately.
Mr DePalma said: “We’ve got so many details with this site that tell us what happened moment by moment, it’s almost like watching it play out in the movies.
“You look at the rock column, you look at the fossils there, and it brings you back to that day.”