Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”
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After 68 million years in the ground, a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Montana was dug up, its leg bone was broken in pieces, and fragments were dissolved in acid in Schweitzer’s laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Cool beans,” she says, looking at the image on the screen.
It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.
Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
It may be that Schweitzer’s unorthodox approach to paleontology can be traced to her roundabout career path. Growing up in Helena, Montana, she went through a phase when, like many kids, she was fascinated by dinosaurs. In fact, at age 5 she announced she was going to be a paleontologist. But first she got a college degree in communicative disorders, married, had three children and briefly taught remedial biology to high schoolers. In 1989, a dozen years after she graduated from college, she sat in on a class at Montana State University taught by paleontologist Jack Horner, of the Museum of the Rockies, now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The lectures reignited her passion for dinosaurs. Soon after, she talked her way into a volunteer position in Horner’s lab and began to pursue a doctorate in paleontology.
She initially thought she would study how the microscopic structure of dinosaur bones differs depending on how much the animal weighs. But then came the incident with the red spots.
In 1991, Schweitzer was trying to study thin slices of bones from a 65-million-year-old T. rex. She was having a hard time getting the slices to stick to a glass slide, so she sought help from a molecular biologist at the university. The biologist, Gayle Callis, happened to take the slides to a veterinary conference, where she set up the ancient samples for others to look at. One of the vets went up to Callis and said, “Do you know you have red blood cells in that bone?” Sure enough, under a microscope, it appeared that the bone was filled with red disks. Later, Schweitzer recalls, “I looked at this and I looked at this and I thought, this can’t be. Red blood cells don’t preserve.”
Schweitzer showed the slide to Horner. “When she first found the red-blood-cell-looking structures, I said, Yep, that’s what they look like,” her mentor recalls. He thought it was possible they were red blood cells, but he gave her some advice: “Now see if you can find some evidence to show that that’s not what they are.”
What she found instead was evidence of heme in the bones—additional support for the idea that they were red blood cells. Heme is a part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood and gives red blood cells their color. “It got me real curious as to exceptional preservation,” she says. If particles of that one dinosaur were able to hang around for 65 million years, maybe the textbooks were wrong about fossilization.
Schweitzer tends to be self-deprecating, claiming to be hopeless at computers, lab work and talking to strangers. But colleagues admire her, saying she’s determined and hard-working and has mastered a number of complex laboratory techniques that are beyond the skills of most paleontologists. And asking unusual questions took a lot of nerve. “If you point her in a direction and say, don’t go that way, she’s the kind of person who’ll say, Why?—and she goes and tests it herself,” says Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University. Schweitzer takes risks, says Karen Chin, a University of Colorado paleontologist. “It could be a big payoff or it could just be kind of a ho-hum research project.”
In 2000, Bob Harmon, a field crew chief from the Museum of the Rockies, was eating his lunch in a remote Montana canyon when he looked up and saw a bone sticking out of a rock wall. That bone turned out to be part of what may be the best preserved T. rex in the world. Over the next three summers, workers chipped away at the dinosaur, gradually removing it from the cliff face. They called it B. rex in Harmon’s honor and nicknamed it Bob. In 2001, they encased a section of the dinosaur and the surrounding dirt in plaster to protect it. The package weighed more than 2,000 pounds, which turned out to be just above their helicopter’s capacity, so they split it in half. One of B. rex’s leg bones was broken into two big pieces and several fragments—just what Schweitzer needed for her micro-scale explorations.