This Dinosaur Is the 'Most Impressive Fossil' We've Ever Seen

Our photographer couldn't believe his eyes when he first saw the fossil—and neither will you, once you see these exclusive pictures.

It takes a lot to wow photographer Robert Clark.

Over his illustrious career, Clark has photographed more than 40 stories for National Geographic magazine, specialising in capturing the distant past of life and culture. He shot China’s exquisite feathered-dinosaur fossils. He watched researchers autopsy Ötzi the Iceman, the famous 5,000-year-old frozen mummy. And he took intimate portraits of people who lived and died 2,300 years ago—their leathery faces preserved in a bog.

But when he travelled to Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology last December and first laid eyes on his next photographic subject, he laughed.

Clark was staring at an 110 million-year-old fossil of a nodosaur, a type of plant-eating armoured dinosaur. Its resting place undersea had helped fossilise the dinosaur’s armour, patches of its skin, some of its soft tissue—and what are likely remnants of the dinosaur’s last meal.

Discovered by an observant miner in 2011 and publicly unveiled on May 12, 2017, the fossil is the best-preserved nodosaur ever found, and arguably one of the most visually arresting fossils unearthed in decades. 

“It was like a Game of Thrones dragon,” Clark says. “It was so dimensional, like a prop from a movie.”

Armoured dinosaurs’ trademark plates usually fell off early in decay, a fate that didn’t befall this nodosaur. The remarkably preserved armour will deepen scientists’ understanding of what nodosaurs looked like and how they moved.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Some 110 million years ago, this armoured plant-eater lumbered through what is now western Canada, until a flooded river swept it into open sea. The dinosaur’s undersea burial preserved its armour in exquisite detail.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The nodosaur neck was covered with thorny armour plates more pronounced than the armour on the rest of its body.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

On the nodosaur’s torso, chocolate-brown ribs lie next to tan osteoderms against a backdrop of gunmetal grey stone.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

During its burial at sea, the nodosaur settled onto its back, pressing the dinosaur’s skeleton into the armour and embossing it with the outlines of some bones. One ripple in the armour traces the animal’s right shoulder blade.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Unlike its more famous relatives in the dinosaur group Ankylosauridae, this nodosaur didn't have a shin-splitting tail club. However, it had two 20-inch-long spikes jutting out of its shoulders like a pair of bull’s horns.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

On the nodosaur’s torso, chocolate-brown ribs lie next to tan osteoderms and dark grey scales. Tendons that once held up the dinosaur’s tail (top) run alongside its spine, preserved as dark brown bands resembling jerky.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The nodosaur's extraordinary preservation captured its armour plating in 3-D, only slightly squished in comparison to its shape in life.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The nodosaur's head and neck gracefully curve to the left, as if the animal were reaching its mouth toward a tasty fern or cycad. The nodosaur's mouth and teeth suggest that it had a weak bite and didn't chew its food much.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Many of the nodosaur's terracotta-hued armour plates have retained sheaths that were once made of keratin, the same material that's in human fingernails.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A cluster of pebble-like masses may be remnants of the nodosaur's last meal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A lucky break in the nodosaur’s left shoulder spike reveals a cross section of its bony core. The spike’s tip was sheathed in keratin, the same material that’s in human fingernails.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The nodosaur seems to flash a glare—an effect produced by the fossil's exquisitely preserved eye socket.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Shocked by the quality of its preservation, he endeavoured to do the fossil justice for National Geographic’s June 2017 issue, taking pains to light the specimen in ways that highlighted its detailed features.

“This is pretty much the most impressive fossil I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of great fossils,” says Clark. “This is kind of another level.”

Clark says that he felt a responsibility to document the fossil for perpetuity: He is likely to be one of the few photographers allowed to shoot it without the specimen under protective glass.

Beyond documenting the fossil’s scientific merit, he also recognises how his photography can capture the public’s imagination, especially among children (some of whom, he adds, undoubtedly know more about dinosaurs than he does).

“My daughter is eight years old, and I showed some of her classmates the pictures,” he says. “They were like (explosion sound)—minds blown.”

Photographer Robert Clark (at right) photographing the nodosaur fossil from above in the preparation lab at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, in December 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VAUGHN WALLACE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Clark photographing the nodosaur from the side. "It looked good from so many different angles," he says.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VAUGHN WALLACE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

One of the blocks of the nodosaur fossil split in half along the plane of the armour, exposing cross-sections of the armour plates. Clark likens photographing this portion of the fossil to shooting a landscape from the air.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VAUGHN WALLACE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

'Clark looks over photographs from the day's shoot, as the imposing nodosaur looms in the background.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VAUGHN WALLACE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Header Image: The right side of the nodosaur's head still bears distinctive tile-like plates and a grey patina of fossilised skin. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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