Preserved Dinosaur Tail With Feathers Discovered


Elizabeth Wang, Staff Writer

A fossilized dinosaur tail with feathers was recently discovered in a 99 million-year-old piece of amber by paleontologist Lida Xing in Myanmar. The tail is 1.4 inches long and contains 8 vertebrae covered with pristinely preserved primitive feathers. The tail is believed to have come from a juvenile coelurosaur.

The fossil was discovered by Xing in 2015 when a salesperson showed the paleontologist a curious piece of amber. According to the salesperson, the small objects preserved in the amber were a few ancient ants and a plant. Xing, however, thought otherwise. After observing it closely, Xing was certain that the “plant” was, in fact, a dinosaur fossil. Xing’s findings were released his research report, “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” which was published in December 2016.

Xing characterizes the fossil as “astonishing.” Bits of feathers from the Cretaceous period have been discovered preserved in amber, but feathers have never been found with dinosaur bones. This find captures a critical moment of differentiation between feathered dinosaurs and modern feathered birds that fly today. The feathers have a poorly-defined central shaft that folds to both sides of the tail. Modern flight feathers, on the other hand, have distinct, well-defined central shafts. Thus, the flexible structure of the fossil’s feathers is more similar to the ornamental feathers of modern flightless birds today. The dinosaur feathers were likely used for temperature regulation.

The tail is also partially exposed to the open air due to cutting performed by a jewelry maker to shape the amber piece into an oval. This characteristic of the fossil, though unfortunate due to the loss of part of the specimen, offered the researchers a unique cross section of the tail, and enabled them to study the chemistry of the exposed surface. Chemical analyses revealed that the fossil contained ferrous iron, which is a decomposition product of hemoglobin in blood. According to paleontologist Ryan McKinnon, the fact that iron is still present in this sample offers a promising future for chemical analyses of preserved specimens in amber.

This fossil is a groundbreaking discovery for the field of paleontology. This fossil also almost became a piece of jewelry. How many other scientific goldmines are right under our noses?