99-Million-Year-Old Feathered Dinosaur Tail Found Perfectly Preserved in Amber

Dec 9 2016 -- 12:00 AM

It's time to cue up that epic Jurassic Park score and get out those stylish Alan Grant ascots because a 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail has been found perfectly preserved in a dollop of Amber. But this specimen, which was discovered in a market in Myanmar, has one thing no Jurassic Park dinosaur has: feathers.

The feathered fossil encased in amber — rather than say, some "archaeology" soap — was spotted by a paleontologist named Dr. Lida Xing from China University of Geosciences in Beijing. Xing told NPR that "I have studied paleontology for more than 10 years and have been interested in dinosaurs for more than 30 years. But I never expected we could find a dinosaur in amber. This may be the coolest find in my life."

The specimen is remarkable because while there have been other feathered fossils found encased in amber, this one can be linked to its source animal, "a non-avialan theropod" from the mid-Cretaceous period.

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The tail, which was the subject of a paper published in Current Biology and is available for closer inspection in the image gallery below, can be definitively identified as that of a dinosaur rather than a prehistoric bird because of its vertebrae. Ryan McKellar, curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada and co-author of the paper, said, "We can be sure of the source because the vertebrae are not fused into a rod or pygostyle as in modern birds... Instead, the tail is long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side."

The curving, "whip-like" tail also offers a unique glimpse of the way feathers evolved. Feathers consist of a central column called a rachis, a main shaft (the quill), and barbs and barbules — the finer tiers of feathers that branch off from the rachis. Xing's specimen has the barbs and barbules, but not the rachis, suggesting that they developed prior to the rachis. And because barbs and barbules are responsible for iridescent feathers, it seems plausible that feathers first arose as a visual cue for dinosaurs to help attract mates.

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Xing says that he hopes to return to Myanmar soon to excavate more specimens, and maybe even find an entire dinosaur encased in amber. All we can hope for is that somewhere out there, a real-life John Hammond is getting his checkbook out.

What do you think about this 99-million-year-old feathered fossil? Preserve your thoughts in the comments section below!

Images: Ryan McKellar/Royal Saskatchewan Museum