Ensconced in a piece of amber roughly the size of a bottle cap, a 99-million-year-old, 1.4-inch section of a dinosaur tail was found by paleontologists in the Hukawng Valley in Kachin State in northern Myanmar. The tail was preserved along with feathers, soft tissue, and bone, as well as mid-Cretaceous-era ant and plant debris.
While preserved feathers have been discovered previously (including a nearly 100-million-year-old bird wing from the same collection of amber), this is the first specimen of its kind to clearly link well-preserved feathers with a dinosaur, opening new pathways for scientists to follow in an effort to better understand dinosaur evolution and phenotypes.
Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences lead the research, funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council.
The feathers preserved on the tail demonstrate one of the earliest differences between the feathers of birds of flight and the feathers of flightless dinosaurs.
According to National Geographic, the “CT scans and microscopic analysis of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae.”
Scientists believe that the tail belonged to a Coelurosaur, part of a group of dinosaurs that ranges from the tyrannosaurs to modern birds.
Although the tail came from a feathered dinosaur, the vertebrae structure indicates that it was not capable of flight. The tail vertebrae are articulated, rather than fused, the latter of which indicates the ability to fly.
The structure of the feathers themselves are akin to something one would find on a modern-day flightless bird. The feathers function for temperature regulation and ornamentation, rather than flight.
One would expect such an extraordinary find to be discovered by a team of highly skilled paleontologists digging for decades in remote stretches of countryside, but this was not the case. The amber samples were collected by Xing and his research team at a well-known amber market in Myitkyina in Kachin State.
Astonishingly, the sample containing the dinosaur tail had already been partially shaped down into an oval to be used as a piece of jewelry.
A decades-long conflict between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army has been prohibitive to research in the area, but as a resolution nears, Xing is hopeful that extensive research can begin. Read his team’s report on the discovery, including photos, here.