A Dinosaur's Bloody Feathered Tail Has Been Found Preserved in Amber

This is the first time that dinosaur skeletal material has been found in amber.

When paleontologist Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing visited an amber market two years ago in Myitkyina, Myanmar, one piece immediately caught the researcher's eye. Xing placed a flashlight under the amber chunk and noticed many slender feathers arranged in an elongated structure. Suspecting that it was an important object, Xing suggested that the Dexu Institute of Paleontology buy the amber.

When Xing and colleagues later CT scanned the amber and analyzed its chemistry, even they were surprised by what they found: a dinosaur tail, residue of dinosaur blood and insects that likely scavenged on the deceased dino, which died about 99 million years ago. The discovery is reported in the journal Current Biology.

"Per pound, it is the most incredible fossil I have ever seen, and it is as close to Jurassic Park as we have ever gotten," co-author Scott Person of the University of Alberta told Seeker.

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Co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum added, "This is the first time that skeletal material from a dinosaur has been found in amber. Previous finds in amber have included isolated feathers that may have belonged to dinosaurs, but without an identifiable part of the body included, their source has remained open to debate."

The researchers believe that a juvenile carnivorous dinosaur belonging to the Maniraptora clade (dinos closely related to birds) could have become trapped in tree resin and died, or passed on for other reasons before resin dripped on it and hardened.

"There are no struggle marks in the amber, so we cannot know for certain," McKellar told Seeker. "That said, there is milky amber around the tail that suggests at least a little bit of moisture remained in the tail when it was encapsulated. Some of the insects trapped alongside the tail also belong to groups that scavenge."

Persons added, "The little bit of tail comes from a dinosaur probably about the size of a robin. The shape of the tail vertebrae, which we can only see in X-ray images, indicates that the dinosaur was a two-legged carnivore. It may be a hatchling or possibly an extremely small species that's new to science. So little of the skeleton is preserved that we cannot tell."

The researchers could confirm that the tail comes from a dinosaur, and not a prehistoric bird, because of its structure. They explained that the tail is long and flexible, lacking a well-developed central shaft, known as a rachis. Keels of feathers run down each side. The structure of these feathers suggests that the two finest tiers of branching seen in modern feathers, called barbs and barbules, arose before a rachis formed.

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"The development of the rachis allows feathers to form long, vaned shapes that are useful for more than just temperature, regulation, or visual signaling," McKellar said. "It provides feathers that are more useful in controlled flight."

Visible traces of pigmentation in the tail's plumage reveal that its upper surface was chestnut brown in color, while its underside was pale or white during the dinosaur's lifetime. The contrast must have been quite striking as the animal moved about.

The amber also remarkably contains some of the original iron from dinosaur blood. If the specimen had been found just a few decades ago, there would have been great hope that it could contain DNA, but studies conducted over recent years suggest that remains degrade too quickly when preserved in amber as well as in related materials, such as copal.

The researchers are now eager to see how more finds from Myanmar and surrounding regions might reshape our understanding of plumage and soft tissues in dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

Don't plan on digging for the remains yourself, however.

Xing explained that the amber mines are not safe.

"The mines are under the control of local forces and are extremely dangerous, so foreigners can hardly get to them," Xing said, adding that resellers buy scraps from amber miners and sell them at the markets in both Myitkyina and Tengchong.

Top photo: Feathered dinosaur tail preserved in amber showing carbon film at its surface exposure, and feathers arranged in keels down both sides of tail. Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

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