For the first time ever, a dinosaur tail has been found in amber … and better yet, it has fabulous feathers.
We don’t have photos of life on Earth 99 million years ago. We don’t have a time machine and we don’t have living dinosaurs to give us a clear picture of their many wonders. What we do have are fossils and amber to tell their stories – and considering the recent discovery of a section of dinosaur tail in a piece of amber, the stories they have are remarkable. Kristin Romey writes in National Geographic:
While individual dinosaur-era feathers have been found in amber, and evidence for feathered dinosaurs is captured in fossil impressions, this is the first time that scientists are able to clearly associate well-preserved feathers with a dinosaur, and in turn gain a better understanding of the evolution and structure of dinosaur feathers.
The stunning find was discovered in a Myanmar amber market by paleontologist Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences, who headed the research. The sample (formally called DIP-V-15103 and given the pet name "Eva") came from a mine in northern Myanmar. Romey reports that amber from this region most likely contains the world's largest variety of animal and plant life from the Cretaceous period.
Eva is described as a semi-translucent mid-Cretaceous piece of amber, comparable in size and shape to a dried apricot. Captured within is the section of tail, a 1.4-inch appendage covered in feathers of white and chestnut brown.
Since most amber from the area is destined to become jewelry, Eva had already been shaped before the researchers found it. (Can you imagine being the person to have done that? Fortunately, the shaping provided a decent cross-section for analyses.)
Along with feathers and soft tissue, the wee bit of tail includes eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin appendage that could have been comprised of up to more than 25 vertebrae. The researchers think it may have belonged to a young coelurosaur.
The study detailing the find has been published in the journal Current Biology, and explains that if the entire tail had been covered in similar feathers, its owner would have likely been unable to fly – suggesting that the feathers were intended for signaling or temperature regulation.
The analyses also revealed ferrous iron in the sample, a byproduct from the blood hemoglobin that was once present in the soft tissue.
"The fact that [the iron] is still present gives us a lot of hope for future analysis, to obtain other chemical information on things like pigmentation or even to identify parts of the original keratin," says Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at Canada's Royal Saskatchewan Museum. "Maybe not for this particular specimen, but for other [samples] down the road."
And what else may be waiting down the road? Xing is looking forward to increased scientific access to the amber mines and, in, turn, to an increase in spectacular discoveries, writes Romey. To what end?
"Maybe we can find a complete dinosaur," says Xing. Even better than a photo.
See more about the remarkable discovery in the video below.