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Paleontology

Dinosaur feathers preserved in amber

Royal Saskatchewan Museum Anatomical evaluation of 99-million-year-old fossil tail leaves no doubt that it belonged to a dinosaur, researchers sayRoyal Saskatchewan Museum

For 99 million years, the feathered tail of a small dinosaur has been preserved in a piece of amber that was sold for jewelry in a market in Myanmar, in Southeast Asia. Researchers estimate that the feathered reptile, a young specimen of the Coelurosauria group, must have been the size of a sparrow. “This is the first time we’ve found dinosaur material preserved in amber,” said paleontologist Ryan McKellar, researcher at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the University of Regina in Canada, in an interview with the BBC News website. McKellar and researcher Lida Xing, from the China University of Geosciences, described the discovery in an article published in Current Biology in December 2016. An anatomical evaluation of the tail leaves no doubt that it belonged to a dinosaur and not a bird. “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,” McKellar explained. Analysis of the material suggests the tail was chestnut brown on top and white underneath. Unlike bird plumage, the dinosaur feathers lack a rachis, which is a well-structured shaft running down the middle. According to the researchers, signs indicate the animal may have been trapped in the sticky resin while still alive. The northeast region of Myanmar, where the specimen was found, has been producing amber pieces for nearly 2,000 years. But larger chunks usually break up during mining. “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 tissue features that don’t usually get preserved,” said McKellar. If other parts had also been preserved, it might be possible to ascertain whether the reptile could fly or glide.

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