The World’s Most Unusual Dinosaur Fossils
Like a banker, he would start working very early in the day—except that he would also work weekends. Every morning at 8:30, Terry Manning walks out of his two-storey brick house in Gypsy Lane, Leicester, England, across the courtyard, into the house next door, up the stairs, and sits on a balcony overlooking the garden. Work at the bench.
He spent the next nine hours or so working there, surrounded by dozens of sand-coloured eggs, ranging in diameter from 3.8 centimeters to 51 centimeters. The eggs, soaked in acid-filled plastic bowls, were laid by dinosaurs living in China between 75 and 85 million years ago. Manning would leave work around 5:30 p.m., go downstairs, read the news, eat, or take a nap. Then, he would climb the steps again and continue to observe under the microscope for several hours.
Manning lived like this for the better part of a decade, beginning in 1993. In the process, he sorted at least 3,100 dinosaur eggs from China’s Henan province, sold most of them to fund his ongoing research, and kept about a third. Manning guessed they might contain what he really wanted: dinosaur embryos. Eventually, the self-taught fossil researcher developed his own technique—using acetic acid, resins, waxes, and other materials to find embryos. He now claims to have an unrivaled collection of three dozen eggs containing unborn dinosaurs. This is unique in itself, all the more remarkable given his lack of scientific training or any institutional oversight. “I basically learned everything from books,” Manning said.
Revolutionary discoveries not made public
When Manning’s first specimens surfaced in the early 1990s, Jeff Liston, president of the European Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists, said: “They were revolutionary discoveries”. Manning found dinosaur embryonic bones as well as soft tissues such as cartilage, which are extremely rare in paleontological research. However, for almost 30 years, only about half of Manning’s collection was publicly shown in a 1995 exhibition. Beyond that, only a handful of scientists were able to publish research on some of these fossils, which resulted in new discoveries.
”It’s almost like a legend or a myth,” Liston said of Manning’s work. A series of exceptional circumstances prevented these specimens from being studied more widely and from being viewed and recognized by the public. The reasons, according to scientists and museum officials who have followed Manning’s work for decades, range from international law and politics to academic skepticism of outsiders in science and the multimillion-dollar price tag Manning placed on the dinosaur eggs he studied.
None of this, however, changes the potential impact of these specimens on the field of paleontology. Renowned paleontologist Luis Chiappe, head of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, said that if the collection were made public, it would be “like finding five paintings of Leonardo on the false wall of a house somewhere in Europe.” A new painting by Leonardo da Vinci”. But since 2010, 33 of Manning’s finest specimens of dinosaur eggs and embryos remain locked away in a safe at a retired banker’s country estate in Sussex, England.
Discovery of the first dinosaur embryo
Manning grew up in Plymouth, England, a loner and an avid reader. “I’m a loner, I’ve never had a friend. I can recite the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover,” he said.
At 12, he set out to correct his teachers; at 17, he donned a kilt and began hitchhiking across Europe, a defining step in his unconventional life. Over the next few decades, Manning made jewelry and bought and sold gems, minerals and fossils, traveling mainly in England, Germany, Russia and the United States.
Manning chose to live on his Tucson farm, away from the internet, to study fossils seriously.
In 1985, while working in a museum in Moscow, he came across a set of dinosaur eggs dug up in Mongolia. He saw something special through a crack in an eggshell. “Through this gap, I saw calcite in it,” he said. He knew the mineral came from hard water, which would cling to the bone and preserve it: “If I could find dinosaur eggs that were laid in shallow areas of the mineral-rich groundwater, the calcite in the water would help preserve the embryo’s bone. “All he has to do is find the right egg and dissolve enough of the shell and surrounding material without destroying the embryo, something no one else has ever done.
Manning broke the news to the fossil dealer. But it wasn’t until 1992 that he got a call from his former business partner, Peter Wu. “I bought a batch of eggs,” said Peter Wu. Just before New Year’s Eve, Manning flew from Manchester to San Francisco to see what Peter Wu had brought back from a recent trip to Henan province in China. It didn’t take him long to conclude that his partner was right. Manning asked Wu Peter to go back to Henan to buy what he wanted. There are so many fossilized dinosaur eggs there that local farmers use them as stones in their stone walls. In nearly a year, Peter Wu bought 3,100 dinosaur egg fossils.
Manning has a humble workstation at home, where he processes fossils for the museum.
On his return to Leicester, Manning began a decade-long routine at his studio in Gypsy Lane. Improve and apply your technique on what Peter Wu found. Since the 1930s, scientists have been using acetic acid to dissolve the rocks surrounding fossilized vertebrates. Manning himself devised a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption, using a bowl for the eggs, a hose attached to the tap, and a spray gun to spray the bones with a stabilizing solution. Experimenting with various concentrations and other materials, Manning developed a method of etching only about 10 microns per day, slowly dissolving the dinosaur eggshell so that he could see what was inside. For specimens worthy of study, he dissolves the silt and stones that coat the embryo’s delicate skeleton. With luck, he can remove a teaspoon of silt from around the embryo. And so, after years of etching, finally uncovered the hidden skull, which is the first time ever to find a skull inside a dinosaur embryo.
Decades later, from his now home in Tucson, Ariz., he says on the phone, “I love doing research like this. The only time I stop early (from work) is around 5:30.” In Leicester, It took Manning about four months to find his first dinosaur embryo.
Excitement and concern over new research
On March 24, 1995, the journal Science published a review of Manning’s research at the University of Cambridge’s Zoological Museum. The authors called the exhibit “shocking” and said “it has left many paleontologists breathless with excitement”.
Manning produced nearly 20 specimens and received enthusiastic support from a small group of paleontologists—enough to kickstart the campaign, along with a booklet titled The Dinosaur Egg and Embryo Project. The Science article noted that the 20 specimens included an egg containing the “most complete set of skeletons,” the fossil of a little-known dinosaur, Theropodosaurus, and the embryo of a pond turtle , which appears to have advanced the age of the species from 40 million years ago to at least 65 million years ago.
Along with praise, the essay analyzes the obstacles that have prevented Manning’s work from gaining more exposure over the decades. The second paragraph grimly states that “academic excitement” has been “diminished and even caused concern”. Worrying: Manning and his partners are private collectors who purchased the eggs with no records of scientific expeditions or where they were collected. They also used the exhibition to lure a potential private buyer who they hoped would donate the specimens to a public museum. The article stated that the price of these specimens was $6 million, enough to pay for Manning to continue to study more dinosaur eggs.
Fossils of Guizhousaurus marine reptiles that lived more than 200 million years ago during the Triassic period in Manning’s studio.
Concerns about the purity of scientific knowledge have hampered legitimate research on these dinosaur embryos due to commercial interests. This is because when museums do not accept and classify specimens with record numbers, research on them cannot be published in vetted and authoritative journals. So, Manning’s possession of these collections undermines the credibility of the research findings related to them. Still, another geologist said, “There is no doubt that these embryos are of incredible scientific importance.”
Liston, president of the European Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and an early supporter of Manning’s work, later wrote wrote a paper, published in 2013, about another hurdle for dinosaur embryos. Ahead of this exhibition, the Chinese government passed a bill reclassifying dinosaur eggs from “trace fossils” to “vertebrate fossils.” That said, it is illegal to ship dinosaur eggs out of China.
Although all of the 3,100 eggs Manning assessed had left China before the law was passed, the possibility of what Liston called “forced repatriation” casts another shadow over the eggs, making any museum or other Public institutions are less likely to acquire and display these specimens. The end result, Liston writes: “This amazing resource of research is on the fringes of scholarship—everyone knows they’re there, but no one can publish them.” Still, the 1995
exhibition was hugely popular. Welcome, the University of Cambridge has extended the exhibition from one month to nine months. After the “Dinosaur Egg and Embryo Project” exhibition was closed, these dinosaur eggs never appeared in public.
embryos for sale
In this debate, in 1998, Manning met scientists who would become his staunch allies. “Manning called me while I was working,” recalls Nudez, who was head of geology at the University of Manchester Museum. The museum has just received £20 million from the UK National Lottery and Manning hopes the museum will be interested in buying the eggs.
The paleontologist drove to Leicester, where the local museum helped store the eggs in the basement. Manning took out a dozen of the best specimens and spread them out on the table. “They’re absolutely stunning,” Nudez said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The only problem, the paleontologist recalls, was that the museum director was very opposed to the idea, seeing it as immoral of. Still, Nudez assured Manning that he would do everything in his power to ensure that Manning’s work received the scientific recognition it deserved.
Over the next decade or so, Nudez and Manning made three trips to China to try to sell the collection and put the eggs in a public museum. At the end of 2004, the two went to Beijing and reported to the curator and other staff of the National Geological Museum. Things went so well that Nudez remembers texting his wife in England: “We’ve sold the embryos.” Nudez’s asking price was $3 million.
However, a few months later, in January 2005, the deal still hadn’t been done. A delegation from the museum traveled to a hotel in Leicester, and Manning and Nudez booked a room, arranging a private exhibition of dinosaur eggs almost as complete as the Cambridge exhibition a decade earlier. “They were impressed,” Nudez said. But then the delegation met with other scientists in London. To this day, Nudez has no idea what was said at the meeting. But he insisted that scientists were unhappy that Manning had no academic credentials, which made the delegation unhappy about the deal. Ultimately, the takeover fell through. “We kept emailing them and never heard back,” he said. “The minister eventually said the deal was off.” In
1995, Science magazine quoted paleontologist Unwin as saying: “Manning’s outsider status may hindered the reception of his work.” Unwin now teaches at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, not far from where Manning worked for many years.
”One of the problems is that Terry Manning has been seen as a professional scholar who doesn’t belong in the field of fossil research,” Unwin said. “It’s a big problem, an elitist attitude. We tend to be an exclusive group. ”
A few years after the $3 million deal fell through, Manning and Nudez met with Ji Qiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences’ Institute of Geology and a doctoral supervisor, at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. He agreed to grant temporary access numbers to the best specimens. This allowed a scientific paper to publish its findings before its access number expired in 2008.
Shortly thereafter, Manning decided to seal the collection in England, where most of the specimens are still kept today, under the caretakers of clients who had bought his fossils. “I trusted him because he was a banker,” Manning said. Another Chinese delegation funded by private investors visited the Sussex estate in 2012, offering about $100,000, Nudez said. “We say it’s not enough.”
Discovery of horned embryonic skulls
Despite the controversy, Manning’s research resulted in two papers. Manning and Nudez are co-authors, along with Slovakian scientist Martin Kunderat. The first, published in Acta Zoologie Sinica in 2008, delves into “Diodontosaurus—the rarest and most enigmatic of theropod dinosaurs.” The paper said Manning had discovered “the most valuable specimen of a dinosaur embryo ever found.”
The second study, published in Current Biology in 2020, looked at specimens collected by Manning from Argentina.
In February 2020, nearly 40 years after Manning purchased the egg from an oil prospector in Patagonia, he handed it over to an Argentinian paleontologist and dinosaur researcher at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Director Chiap. Chiap was supposed to board the plane to Buenos Aires with the egg on March 6, 2020, but the flight was canceled due to the new crown virus, and Chiap’s office in Los Angeles was precious. The specimen was also quarantined for almost two years. But in the end, a coveted designation made the paper in Current Biology possible.
The paper’s findings on sauropod embryo skulls made news in The New York Times, the Smithsonian Institution, New Scientist and others. Findings include the sauropod embryo’s eyes facing forward, and it also had a small horn on the tip of its snout. As far as scientists know, these dinosaurs, which were about 36.6 meters long from nose to tail, had their eyes facing sideways and lacked horns when they were fully grown. The study found that they may use this horn to peck the eggs and then hatch. Scientists called the finds and specimens “astonishing” and “unique”.
an experimental science
In a recent phone call from Manchester, Nudez revealed how reclusive Manning, 77, had become. The paleontologist had been trying to contact the friend for days without success. Finally, he got another friend from Southwest to call the Tucson sheriff’s office and ask about Manning, only to learn that everything was fine, that Manning had no internet in his life and hadn’t seen Nudez’s emails .
When his Argentinian specimen study was published in 2020, he had no idea it was getting international media coverage. Manning doesn’t even own a cell phone, which he borrows from his wife, Claudine Chisholm, when he needs one, and on a recent call he asked how to turn the volume up. His day job is to contract projects, such as the Triassic lizard fossils that are going on display at the museum.
But Nudez insists that neither the remoteness of time nor the passage of time can diminish the scientific significance of Manning’s specimen. “In terms of the way it was prepared and the quality of preservation, none of the embryos in this collection were like this one,” Nudez said. The findings in Argentine sauropod embryos It shows that the rare Chinese dinosaur embryos collected by Manning have potential research value. Back in Leicester, paleontologist David Unwin said his own research work in museums had shown that the most important museum fossils came from private collectors. “We should do a pretty big reassessment of what exactly this scientific subculture is doing with these objects,” he says.
Manning’s situation illustrates the need for change. “This work is like an experiment in the history of science,” Unwin added. “If we discover something great, but you’re not allowed to study it, you’re not allowed to look at it, then what happens?
” Until something else happens, the experiment continues. On Manning’s farm in Arizona, he is studying other eggs that he says contain fossilized yolks of Oviraptorus. Oviraptor is a long misunderstood dinosaur, the latest specimen research shows that they may be egg guard animals, before the scientific community dubbed them “egg thief”. When asked about the eggs, Manning called them “the part that no one knows about.” Similar to the embryos from China, they also waited more than 70 million years to be discovered.