The pair of skulls – belonging to Hypacrosaurus stebingeri – boasted a number of extremely well preserved cells which researchers claim could be DNA.
Upon inspection, circular structures were spotted on the surface of the skulls’ cartilage, some linked together while others stand apart.
Unable to say for sure, the researchers believe these markings are reminiscent of a nucleus, and others held tangled coils resembling chromosomes.
Alida Bailleul from the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed that she “couldn’t believe” the potentially massive find, adding that her “heart almost stopped beating”.
Leading molecular palaeontologist Mary Schweitzer, who joined the research after first seeing the skulls, has claimed in the past that Tyrannosaurus rex fossils can preserve protein cells for millions of years, and it was met with much controversy.
She told National Geographic this month: “I’m not even willing to call it DNA because I’m cautious, and I don’t want to overstate the results.
“There is something in these cells that is chemically consistent with and responds like DNA.”
If the researchers can prove that the findings are indeed DNA, it would blow open theory on how long it can survive for.
It has been thought that it can take around 5.3 million years before strands of DNA become completely unreadable.
However, given that the duck-billed dinosaurs lived in Montana around 75 million years ago – a group the Hypacrosaurus stebingeri fall under – DNA if found would have lived 15 times longer than original estimates.
The Hypacrosaurus was a duck-billed dinosaur which was tall, had a hollow round crest and lived in what is now North America.
Dr Schweitzer and her colleagues tested the features of the dinosaur skulls with cells from emus due to their similar characteristics
She claimed: “This immunological test supports the presence of remnants of original cartilaginous proteins in this dinosaur.”
Dr Bailleul added: “These new exciting results add to growing evidence that cells and some of their biomolecules can persist in deep-time.
“They suggest DNA can preserve for tens of millions of years, and we hope that this study will encourage scientists working on ancient DNA to push current limits and to use new methodology in order to reveal all the unknown molecular secrets that ancient tissues have.”
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However, the work of Dr Schweitzer and co has proved divisive within the science community as her results have not been replicated by other research teams.
Matthew Collins, a leading paleo proteomics researcher at the University of York said: “I want them to be right. It’s great work. I just can’t replicate it.”
Other critics have been even harsher as Jakob Vinther of University of Bristol also cast doubts over the findings.
He said: “It’s problematic that no other lab has been able to replicate Mary Schweitzer’s work.
“The idiom that exceptional claims require exceptional evidence remains.”
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