Scientists Find Feathered Dinosaur Tail Preserved in Amber

Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)
Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar) / Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

Paleontologists have discovered a tiny dinosaur’s fluffy tail preserved inside a drop of amber. They described their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The amber market in northern Myanmar where the specimen was found has already proven itself a rich scientific resource. Earlier this year, a team of researchers reported finding a pair of well-preserved bird wings dating back at least 100 million years. The team had bought more than a dozen pieces of amber, including those two. As they turned their attention to the rest of their purchase, one silver dollar–sized chunk stood out.

Lida Xing

Within this drop lay what looked like a tiny, feathery switch not even an inch and a half long. Computed tomography (CT) scans, high-powered microscopy, and chemical analysis confirmed the team’s suspicions: They’d found a dinosaur tail.

More specifically, they’d found part of the tail of a fluffy young theropod, most likely a coelurosaur.

Look at that cutie. Image Credit: Chung-tat Cheung

The articulated tail contained eight vertebrae and delicate, barbed feathers that would have been white or chestnut brown while the little dinosaur was still alive. Unlike the bird wing feathers, these appear to be more ornamental than anything else. The researchers say that if the rest of the coelurosaur’s tail looked like this segment, it was unlikely it would have been flight-worthy at all. Its handsome fluffy feathers would have kept it on the ground.

Co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan museum says these findings reaffirm the importance of amber to the scientific record. “Amber pieces preserve tiny snapshots of ancient ecosystems,” he said in a statement, “but they record microscopic details, three-dimensional arrangements, and labile tissues that are difficult to study in other settings. This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity and protecting as a fossil resource."