Baby dinosaur from Italy with guts preserved

A Bristol PhD student this week published research on an unusual baby dinosaur specimen, the first ever to show fossilised internal organs. The dinosaur is a new species and the first to be discovered in Italy.

Marco Signore, who is working on his PhD in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, published a dramatic new discovery in Nature on 25 March. Together with fellow Italian, Cristiano Del Sasso of the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale in Milan, Italy, Marco has been working on a remarkable baby dinosaur specimen for the last three years.

A model of the new dinosaur, Scipionyx

Cristiano dal Sasso (left) and Marco Signore with the unique fossil of Scipionyx, and a life-size model

Marco is part of a large team of palaeobiologists working in the Department of Earth Sciences in Bristol. There are about 20 students there, from all parts of the world, and these include a leading group studying the origin and evolution of dinosaurs.

'Marco is an outstanding young student, and he has made tremendous progress in his first year. It is remarkable for a student to publish a paper in Nature so early in his career,' said Professor Michael Benton, Marco's PhD supervisor.

'The University of Bristol has a formal research agreement with the University of Naples to work on this amazing new fossil site in southern Italy. We hope to work there later this summer, and try to study the extraordinary conditions of preservation. It's not every day you find a 100 million year old fossil with its guts and windpipe in place,' said Professor Benton.

Close-up of the head and gut trace of Scipionyx

Close-up of the unique fossil of Scipionyx, and a life-size model

Marco began his PhD in Bristol in 1997, funded at first by a grant from the University of Naples, and now by a studentship from the European Community. These EC studentships are highly competitive, and Marco was one of only five students of Earth Sciences throughout Europe to obtain such a grant in the last funding round.

The new discovery is called Scipionyx samniticus. Key facts about it are:

The new dinosaur is Early Cretaceous in age, about 113 million years old. It comes from a locality in southern Italy, a site well known for exceptionally well preserved freshwater organisms, shrimps, fishes, and crocodilians. It has been named Scipionyx samniticus, after the Roman general Scipio Africanus, and in reference to Scipione Breislak, the geologist who first described the fossils from this area in 1798. 'Samniticus' is derived from the Latin name for the Benevento province where it was found. The dinosaur was tiny, only 25 cm long, and the unique specimen is probably a juvenile.

A model of the new dinosaur, Scipionyx

The fossil of Scipionyx, complete except for the tail and hind legs

The internal organs are very well preserved, and this is the first time such unusual preservation has been found. In the throat region is a segment of wind pipe, with the reinforcing rings, and there are patches of preserved muscle in the shoulder area and at the base of the tail. The most amazing feature is the preserved intestine, a broad but short irregular tube filling the abdominal cavity, and showing bands of muscular tissue. The texture and colour look just like the intestine of a recently dissected animal. Other soft-tissue traces include a haematitic (iron-rich) halo just in front of the intestine, and possibly representing the liver.


Dal Sasso, C. and Signore, M. 1998. Exceptional soft-tissue preservation in a theropod dinosaur from Italy. Nature, 392, 383-387.

More information at: http://www.nature.com/