Dec 10, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Preserved Dinosaur Tail Sheds Light On Dino Feather Mystery

Out of all the mysteries surrounding dinosaurs, one of the most enduring is the question of whether or not dinosaurs had feathers. Since at least the nineteenth century discovery of Archaeopteryx in Germany, it’s been theorized that dinosaurs may have evolved into birds or at least share many of the same evolutionary ancestors. Dinosaurs and birds share many physiological similarities, and it’s even been recently proposed that dinosaurs didn’t roar, but instead cooed similar to birds. Just this week, a stunning new discovery was announced which could potentially link dinosaurs and birds once and for all.

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It is generally believed that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs known as theropods.

This discovery began when paleontologist Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing found a peculiar chunk of amber at a market in Myanmar. Upon closer inspection, it was found that the amber contained a perfectly preserved dinosaur tail, complete with feathersThe 3.6-centimeter-long tail is thought to have belonged to a coelurosaur, a sparrow-sized carnivorous dinosaur which lived during the Cretaceous era 99 million years ago and is from the same family as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor.

The feathers are unlike modern bird feathers in that they do not have a a central shaft, or “rachis.”

One of the authors of the published study of the tail, Ryan McKellar from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada, told ResearchGate that this specimen is the first of its kind:

This is the first time that we have skeletal material from a dinosaur (other than birds) reported from amber. [...] The tail is flexible and composed of a series of elongate, cylindrical vertebrae. The feathers also support a particular pathway for the evolutionary development of these structures.  

Already, scientists are abuzz with new speculation that dinosaurs may have been covered in feathers rather than scales. Researchers have also found traces of iron in the amber, implying that the dinosaur’s blood might also be trapped within.

Unlike traditional flat fossils, this tail specimen allows paleontologists to study the full three-dimensional physiology of the tail.

Even if this discovery does not pan out to be a game-changer in terms of dinosaur-bird theory, the find is remarkable in that it demonstrates some unknown aspects of the evolutionary development of feathers for purposes other than flight.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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