Paleontologists have come across a “once-in-a-lifetime find” -a piece of amber containing a dinosaur tail with feathers still attached. The discovery is the first to conclusively show that some dinosaurs, ancestors of modern birds, had feathers.
As described in an article from the journal Current Biology, the find was made by Chinese paleontologist, Xing Lida, from the China University of Geosciences, who purchased the 3.5 cm chunk of amber from a market in Kachin state in northern Myanmar. The specimen was then analyzed with the help of Ryan McKellar, curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, who says that this is the first known example of dinosaur bone and feathers preserved in the same piece of amber.
“We found feathers, but there’s always been the underlying question of who the feathers belong to,” McKellar said at the museum in Regina. “In this case, we actually get to see how they attach to the tail and the tail itself provides us some clues as to which group of animals it came from.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime find,” McKellar told CNN. “The finest details are visible and in three dimensions.”
The tail fragment is thought to have belonged to a small two-legged theropod from the Coelurosauria clade of dinosaurs during the mid-Cretaceous period, approximately 99 million years ago. CT scans and microscopic analysis showed eight vertebrae in the preserved specimen, likely representing one section of a tail estimated to be composed of more than 25 vertebrae.
Even traces of pigmentation can be seen in the feathers, which were noted by the researchers to be a “chestnut brown” on the dorsal surface, contrasting with a “pale or almost white ventral plumage.”
The lineage from dinosaur to modern-day birds has been tracked for some time now, but with further (feathered) findings, the connection is becoming more apparent – birds themselves are now classified as dinosaurs, with the dinos now falling under the category of “non-avian dinosaurs.” “The more we see these feathered dinosaurs and how widespread the feathers are, things like a scaly velociraptor seem less and less likely and they’ve become a lot more bird like in the overall view,” says McKellar, in conversation with CNN.
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Researchers state that the find represents an “astonishing fossil,” which exemplifies the special preservation powers of amber. But before we go all “Jurassic Park-y” with thoughts of reviving hordes of T-Rex’s and brontos, it turns out that amber’s preservation powers are somewhat limited. As explained by scientist Jack Horner, reportedly an inspiration for the Jurassic Park film, in his well-known TED talk, DNA such as that from Cretaceous creatures does not last more than a few million years before degrading, even under near-perfect conditions like those afforded by amber encasement.
Amber from the Hukawng Valley in Kachin state is thought to contain the world’s largest variety of preserved animal and plant life from the Cretaceous period. Speaking to National Geographic, Xing believes that political strife in the region is nearing its end, which would likely mean the opening up of the area to further scientific exploration of Kachin’s amber mines. “Maybe we can find a complete dinosaur,” he says.