BBC reports on a brown-and-white relic that reveals what dinosaurs really looked like – the first material from a dinosaur’s body ever discovered:
“This is the first time we’ve found dinosaur material preserved in amber,” co-author Ryan McKellar, of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada, told the BBC News website.
The study’s first author, Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, discovered the remarkable fossil at an amber market in Myitkina, Myanmar.
The 99-million-year-old amber had already been polished for jewellery and the seller had thought it was plant material. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be the tail of a feathered dinosaur about the size of a sparrow.
Lida Xing was able to establish where it had come from by tracking down the amber miner who had originally dug out the specimen.
“We can be sure of the source because the vertebrae are not fused into a rod or pygostyle as in modern birds and their closest relatives,” he explained.
“Instead, the tail is long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side.”
Dr McKellar said there are signs the dinosaur still contained fluids when it was incorporated into the tree resin that eventually formed the amber. This indicates that it could even have become trapped in the sticky substance while it was still alive.
The feathers lack the well-developed central shaft – a rachis – known from modern birds. Their structure suggests that the two finest tiers of branching in modern feathers, known as barbs and barbules, arose before the rachis formed.
“The larger amber pieces often get broken up in the mining process. By the time we see them they have often been turned into things like jewellery. We never know how much of the specimen has been missed,” said Dr McKellar.
“If you had a complete specimen, for example, you could look at how feathers were arranged across the whole body. Or you could look at other soft tissue features that don’t usually get preserved.”
Other preserved parts of a feathered dinosaur might also reveal whether it was a flying or gliding animal.
“There have been other, anecdotal reports of similar specimens coming from the region. But if they disappear into private collections, then they’re lost to science,” Dr McKellar explained.
Lots of photos and an illustration of what the little critter might have looked like at the link. Read more on the discovery in Current Biology.