Amber is often prized not just for its golden beauty, but also for the tiny creatures it contains, many of them millions of years old. Now, a chunk of this fossilized tree sap found at a market in Myanmar has turned out to contain a very rare treasure indeed: a slender piece of feathered tail that belonged to a small bipedal dinosaur that lived about 99 million years ago.
“Since Jurassic Park came out, paleontologists have joked about finding dinosaurs in amber, since it would contain so much extra information. And now we have a piece of one,” says Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved in the study.
Researchers aren’t using ancient blood from the belly of preserved mosquitos to recreate dinosaurs, as in the movies. But the finding does reveal a feathered dinosaur tail in 3D for the first time, and offers a unique glimpse into the early evolution of feathers. Amber is a uniquely useful fossilizer, notes Michael Engel, a paleontologist and entomologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was also not involved in the study. “It preserves things in lifelike fidelity.” Although it’s rare to find larger animals preserved in the sticky flow, researchers have found everything from frogs to lizards to ancient bird wings, likely entombed after death.
The amber deposits of northern Myanmar harbor one of the most diverse arrays of animals from the Cretaceous period. Paleontologist Lida Xing of China University of Geosciences in Beijing was hunting through an amber market in Myanmar for lizard and insect specimens when a particular chunk caught his eye: Along with the usual scattering of insects, it contained a 3.6-centimeter-long section of a flexible, finely feathered tail. Right away, he knew he had something special.
Xing contacted paleontologist Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada, and the team used photographs taken through microscopes and computerized tomography scanning (computer-processed combinations of images taken by x-rays at different angles to reveal interior details of the fossil) to study the eight preserved vertebrae and their feathers.
Unlike Archaeopteryx (a 150-million-year-old creature thought by many researchers to be among the very earliest birds) or modern birds, the vertebrae were not fused into a solid rod at the tip of the tail. Instead, the tail in amber is whiplike and flexible, bending in several places at once. That, the researchers report online today in Current Biology, suggests that its owner was not a bird but in fact a dinosaur, and likely a member of a group of small two-legged dinosaurs called coelurosaurs. (Jurassic Park fans, take note: Compsognathus—nicknamed “compys” in the movies—are a member of this group.)
Source: Science Mag