Were dinosaurs the scaly, lizard-like monsters we know from movies and television – or were they really just misunderstood, oversized birds? It’s a question that’s been debated in the scientific community in recent years, but we finally have definitive proof that at least some species of dinosaur were covered in bird-like feathers. This new revelation comes thanks to a small nugget of amber discovered at a Hukawng Valley amber mine in Myanmar, where researchers uncovered the feathered tail of a small, sparrow-sized dinosaur that died 99 million years ago.
The discovery was thanks to Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences, who found the curious piece in a Myanmar market in 2015. Initially, the matter trapped inside was assumed to be some type of plant, and the seller hoped to find a jeweler or fossil collector to purchase the piece. Dr. Xing, suspecting there was more to the specimen than met the eye, persuaded the Dexu Institute of Paleontology to purchase it for further study.
From there, it was sent for analysis at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada. Researchers at the museum were able to examine the amber using a microscope and CT scans, which showed this strange “plant” to actually be the preserved tail of a theropod dinosaur, covered in downy feathers.
The tail consists of eight vertebrae, an important clue that they are not from any kind of modern bird. Birds as we know them, along with their closest relatives, have vertebrae fused into a rod or pygostyle. Researchers were also able to perform a chemical analysis of some of the tissue, where it poked out from the surface of the amber. They found traces of ferrous iron (a component of the dinosaur’s blood) also trapped within the sample’s soft tissue.
They believe the creature the tail belonged to was most likely a coelurosaur – a smaller carnivorous cousin of the Tyrannosaurus, which thrived in the mid-Cretaceous period. This particular individual was only a baby, judging from the size of the tail – a scant two millimeters across.
It’s a bit difficult to judge exactly what the feathers looked like when the dinosaur was alive, given that some pigments may have broken down over time. However, scientists believe the feathers were dark brown on top and colorless on the underside. While it’s looking more and more that dinosaurs are more related to modern birds than we originally believed, the feathers seem to have served a completely different function. These were not creatures designed for flight – for one thing, the feathers are far too flexible to be useful in staying aloft. Instead, researchers believe they might have been used to regulate the dinosaurs’ temperature or send nervous signals.
This sample is only the first of its kind, and scientists are excited at the possibility of finding more in Myanmar’s amber mines. In the past, it’s been difficult to access specimens from the area due to conflict between Myanmar’s government and the Kachin Independence Army who currently occupy the area. With that conflict potentially coming to a close, the mines would be open for further research – and, perhaps, Dr. Xing hopes, a whole dinosaur could one day be uncovered.
Via The Telegraph
Images via Chung-Tat Cheung and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum