History Museum, London/Mark Witton
Flowering plants may have been around when the earliest known dinosaurs were around. Here, an artist's illustration of a Nyasasaurus, possibly the oldest known dinosaur, from the Middle Triassic of Tanzania.
Sept. 15, 2011 --
A stunning array of prehistoric feathers, including dinosaur protofeathers, has been discovered in Late Cretaceous amber from Canada. The 78 to 79-million-year-old amber preserved the feathers in vivid detail, including some of their diverse colors. The collection, published in this week's Science, is among the first to reveal all major evolutionary stages of feather development in non-avian dinosaurs and birds. In this slide, an isolated barb from a vaned feather is visible trapped within a tangled mass of spider's web.
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"These specimens were most likely blown into the tacky resin, or were plucked from an animal as it brushed against resin on a tree trunk," lead author Ryan McKellar told Discovery News. "The fact that we have found some specimens trapped within spider webs in the amber would suggest that wind played an important role in bringing the feathers into contact with the resin," added McKellar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. The feather filaments shown here are similar to protofeathers that have been associated with some dinosaur skeletons.
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McKellar and his team made the discovery after screening over 4,000 amber samples from Grassy Lake, Alberta. The amber, collected by the Leuck family, is now housed at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The researchers ruled out that the inclusions were mammal hairs, plant or fungal remains based on their structure. Some dinosaur fossils retain skin impressions, so the scientists could match dinosaur protofeathers (hair-like projections) to some of the objects within the amber. Here, a feather is visible near a plant bug. The high number of coils in the this feather suggests it could have come from a water-diving bird.
The translucent tree resin provides a window into feather evolution, from non-avian dinosaurs to birds. "Part of what makes this particular set of feathers interesting is that we find the very simple Stage I and II feathers alongside advanced feathers that are very similar to those of modern birds, Stages IV and V," McKellar said. The researchers aren't yet certain why feathers first evolved, but the density of the protofeathers suggests that they helped dinosaurs with regulating temperature. Dinosaurs such as Troodon or Deinonychus may have produced the feathers. The cork-screw shaped structures in this slide are the tightly coiled bases of feather barbules.
As feathers continued to change, they developed tufts, barbs, branching features, little hooks, and more. Some of the most advanced feathers in the collection are comparable to those of modern grebes. They appear to help diving, indicating that some of the prehistoric birds were divers. McKellar suspects the marine birds might have been Hesperornithiformes, a specialized flightless diving bird from the Dinosaur Era. This is a white belly feather of a modern grebe, showing coiled bases comparable to those seen in the Cretaceous specimen.
Some of the feathers appear transparent now, but would have been white in life. A range of colors for the feathers is evident, though, with grays, reds and various shades of brown preserved. This, and prior research, suggests that non-avian dinosaurs and prehistoric birds could be quite flashy. The pigment within this fossilized feather suggests it would have originally been medium- or dark-brown in color.
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In an accompanying "Perspectives" article in Science, Mark Norell points out that the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx is thought to have had a reddish banded tail, while Anchiornis likely possessed a striking black body, banded wings and a reddish head comb. Norell, chair and curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology, told Discovery News that the newly discovered feathers are "very exciting." Here, a feather barb within Late Cretaceous Canadian amber shows some indication of original coloration.
Some dino aficionados have wondered if DNA could be extracted from the feathers. "Almost anything is possible," Norell said, quickly adding that most DNA-extraction studies have been conducted on much younger amber, dating to around 20-30 million years ago, and even those led to questionable results. "Maybe bits and pieces could be identified, but not the whole genome." Shown are 16 clumped feathers in Late Cretaceous amber.
People with amber objects, such as jewelry, also probably don't have prehistoric feather inclusions, since such items are extremely rare and dealers isolate the best pieces. Nevertheless, McKellar said, "There is some hope that you could have small feather fragments that have been overlooked." An unpigmented feather and a mite in Canadian Late Cretaceous amber.
Newfound fossils hint that flowering plants arose 100 million years earlier than scientists previously thought, suggesting flowers may have existed when the first known dinosaurs roamed Earth, researchers say.
Flowering plants are now the dominant form of plant life on land, evolving from relatives of seed-producing plants that do not flower, such as conifers and cycads.
"Flowering plants were the last group of plants appearing in Earth's history," said Peter Hochuli, a paleobotanist at the University of Zürich's Paleontological Institute and Museum and a co-author of the new study. "They are an extremely successful group on which all terrestrial ecosystems today depend, including the existence of humanity."
Flowering plants, or angiosperms, became the dominant plants about 90 million years ago, when the dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. However, the exact time when these plants originated remains hotly debated.
Now, scientists have unearthed ancient pollen grains with microscopic features typically seen in flowering plants. These well-preserved fossils, discovered in two core samples drilled in northern Switzerland, are about 245 million years old, dating back to the earliest known dinosaur in the Middle Triassic period. (See Images of the Earliest Known Dinosaur)
"Our findings suggest that the origin of flowering plants is rooted much deeper than originally thought," Hochuli told LiveScience.
Pollen grains are small, robust and numerous. This makes them easier to find in the fossil record than comparably large and fragile leaves and flowers. After analyzing the structure of these grains, the researchers suggested that the associated plants were pollinated by insects -- most likely beetles, as bees did not evolve until about 100 million years later.
Six different types of pollen were found in the ancient samples, revealing that flowering plants back then may have been considerably diverse. The researchers have seen these pollen grains in both Switzerland and the Barents Sea, north of Scandinavia. However, back in the Middle Triassic, both areas were located in the subtropics, and the region that is now Switzerland was much drier than the Barents Sea region, suggesting the flowering plants spanned a broad range of environments.
The fossil record of flowering plants is continuous, dating back 140 million years. Until now, the fossil record of flowering plants suggested they dominated the planet rather quickly after their earliest appearance. "This sudden appearance has bothered scientists ever since Darwin, who called the origin of flowering plants an 'abominable mystery,'" Hochuli said.
These newfound fossils reveal that flowering plants may have existed more than 100 million years longer than previously thought. This increased span of time might help explain how flowering plants spread, diversified and prevailed on land.
The ancestors of flowering plants currently remain a mystery, and scientists aren't sure what kind of events or conditions might have spurred their origin.
"So far, no direct ancestors of flowering plants are known," Hochuli said. "Some groups of plants are suspected to be closely related. But the evidence is weak, and most of these groups are thought to be too specialized to be at the base of the flowering plants."
Hochuli and his colleague Susanne Feist-Burkhardt detailed their findings Oct. 1 in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
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