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MALTA – Just as millions of moviegoers have begun flocking to see the latest computer-animated dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park III,” another dinosaur is quietly making its debut on a sandy hillside north of Malta.

Over the last few weeks, Nate Murphy, Phillips County Museum director of paleontology, and 29 volunteers have excavated the fossilized remains of a 77-million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur from its concrete-like encasement.

Dubbed “Leonardo” by the excavation crew, the 22-foot-long Brachylophosaurus canadensis is a type of hadrosaur. The remains were found on private land last year by another of Murphy’s volunteers, Dan Stephenson, of Minot, S.D.

Leonardo is only one of four existing Brachylophosaurus specimens uncovered to date.

“But none are as perfect as Leonardo.” Murphy said.

In addition to its nearly complete skeleton, traces of the dinosaur’s skin are visible on the left forearm, ribcage, head and neck of the dinosaur. Also visible on the forearm is the fossilized outline of a footpad.

In 1994, Murphy also discovered one of the other three known brachylophosaurs, a newly restored specimen nicknamed Elvis. Since Elvis went on display on July 5 at the Phillips County Museum, attendance has increased more than 80 percent over the same time last year.

Like Leonardo, Elvis is a fully articulated hadrosaur. But, unlike Leonardo, Elvis’ 32-foot-long skeleton has no remaining traces of skin. That’s what makes Leonardo so unusual.

“It’s wonderful that you have an articulated skeleton, but the cherry on top is the skin impressions because it’s such an unexpected find,” Murphy said.

Known as “trace fossils,” the impressions are made when the dinosaur’s skin mummifies and over time is replaced by minerals.

Murphy said skin impressions are so rare because the conditions have to be just right in terms of sediment and oxygen levels. Otherwise the animal’s soft tissue decays without leaving a trace.

“This little guy got buried under just the right conditions,” Murphy said.

Skin impressions important because, without such concrete evidence of the dinosaur’s appearance, all paleontologists have had are bones to go by as they attempt to re-create what a particular dinosaur might have looked like in life, Murphy explained.

“Now with the few specimens with skin impressions that we’ve recovered from around the world, both scientists and paleolife artists have been able to give us a clearer picture of how they looked in real life.” he said.

One thing that Leonardo’s skin impressions have shown already is that there is variation in scale size and shape between dinosaur species, said Brian Franczak, of Connecticut. He is one of two paleolife artists who have been working at the dig site.

Compared with the skin impressions on the Edmontosaurus on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Leonardo’s are much larger and hexagonal rather than round, Franezak said.

Also of interest is the outline of Leonardo’s foot, which confirms that all the fingers except one are encased in a fleshy mitten-like pad, Franczak noted.

Murphy said he expects to learn even more about Leonardo once it can be removed from the site and brought back to the museum lab for preparation and study.

Regarding what has been revealed so far, the estimated age of the animal when alive is of significant interest, said Greg Wenzel, a paleolife artist from Massachusetts who specializes in three-dimensional sculptures.

He and Franezak traveled across the country to document the excavation of Leonardo.

Franczak said, that based on current studies of hadrosaur growth rates, Leonardo is believed to have been about 3 or 4 years old when it died, making this the first sub-adult brachylophosaurus ever found.

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