Scientists have found a dinosaur tail encased in a Burmese Amber stone. Moreover, the stone is no bigger than a dried fruit!
The astonishing part is that the tail, embedded deep within the smooth amber stone, is covered in feathers. A feathered dinosaur tail may not sound like shocking news, but this specimen is more than just a feather from a dinosaur or a feather impression. This one is more than scientists bargained for, allowing them to study not just the mechanics of the feathers but also chemical properties of the tail itself.
Finding Proof of Prehistoric birds?
It’s truly interesting how scientists discovered this morsel. The Amber rock (DIP-V-15103) was already polished and being formed into a charm at a market in Myitkyina in the Kachin state. Its oval shape was smooth and ready for purchase, just like other specimens found at the Hukawg Valley mines. In fact, more than a dozen of these amber pieces were found containing bird-like feathers and other preserved organic substances.
There’s a plus side to this processing, however, as the shape and polish allowed a nice cross section of the tail. This cross section provided traces of ferrous iron revealing how decomposition had transformed the blood hemoglobin of the soft tissue.
These birds won’t fly
The preserved dinosaur tail is dated to over 99 million years ago, during the Cretaceous era. The tail was believed to have at least 25 vertebrae in its complete form. Previous reports, in June of this year, stated that Cretaceous era feathers were remarkably like feathers of modern flying birds. But now we know that this is not so. These are no modern flying birds.
Finding this dinosaur tail, covered in two-toned brown and white feathers, meant gaining a larger understanding of evolution. There is an obvious difference between bird’s feathers for flight and these feathers, which were used for something else entirely. It’s surmised that dinosaurs used their feathers as temperature regulators or for signaling other dinosaurs.
How do we know this?
The truth lies with the design of the central shaft of the tail feathers. While birds of flight have a well-defined central tail shaft, dinosaurs do not. With a bird’s central shaft, there is a fused vertebra called pygostyle, which enables the bird to move its tail feathers as a single unit.
Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at Canada’s Royal Saskatchewan Museum, said,
“A pygostyle is the sort of thing you see if you prepare a turkey. The dinosaur, on the other hand, without the pygostyle, would have been incapable of flight”
The dinosaur’s poorly defined rachis or central shaft makes it impossible for them to fly. In the amber sample, the feathers seem to fall to either side of the tail, much like ornamental feathers would behave. Since ornamental feathers are articulated in this manner, the sample couldn’t possibly be a bird. Based on these structures, scientists believe the tail belonged to a juvenile coelurosaur, which is part of a group of therapods including the tyrannosaurus.
Paleontologist Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences headed the research, which was funded by National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Counsel. Xing hopes that the future will bring more expeditions leading to astonishing discoveries.
The full report on these fantastic findings can be seen in the journal Current Biology.
Photographs by R.C. Mckellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum