The well-preserved tail of a small dinosaur has been discovered at a market in northern Myanmar. The feathered appendage, which was about 99 million years old, was preserved in a piece of amber the size of an apricot.
Browsing an amber market in Myanmar last year, China University of Geosciences paleontologist Lida Xing found a fossil containing 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters) of bony, fleshy feathered tail that had belonged to a sparrow-sized maniraptoran. The 99-million-year-old amber would likely have become jewelry had Xing not spotted it and investigated for a study published Thursday in the US journal Current Biology.
Scientists believe that the two-legged birdlike juvenile dinosaur had gotten its feathery tail stuck in tree resin - a death trap for the small creature. "They don't drop their tails like some lizards," said Ryan McKellar, a scientist at Canada's Royal Saskatchewan Museum and co-author of the study.
In the film "Jurassic Park," scientists manage to clone dinosaurs from DNA found in a piece of amber. Though he did not hint at any efforts to recreate the clade, McKellar said the feathered find highlighted the importance of amber to paleontology. Scientists analyzed the amber inclusion using CT scanning and microscopic observations.
"Amber pieces preserve tiny snapshots of ancient ecosystems, but they record microscopic details, three-dimensional arrangements and labile tissues that are difficult to study in other settings," McKellar said. "This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity and protecting as a fossil resource," he added.
Dinosaurs vs. birds
Long and flexible and lacking a pygostyle, or fused vertebrae that supports birds' tail feathers, the anatomy of the Cretaceous Period fossil enabled scientists to rule out that it had belonged to an avian. Scientists have previously discovered feathers preserved in amber, but they had not yet definitively linked one to dinosaurs, researchers said.
Scientists can now learn about the early moments of differentiation between dinosaurs and birds and discover more about extinct feathered creatures, as well as the evolution of the plumes themselves. Birds, which first appeared about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, evolved from small feathered dinosaurs.
Despite its feathered tail, the dinosaur likely could not fly, the paleontologist McKellar said. The plumage probably helped the animal with mating rituals or with thermal regulation, he added.
Their analysis deduced that the feathers had likely had a dark brown hue on top, with a pale or white underside. A soft tissue layer around the bones contained traces of ferrous iron from hemoglobin preserved in the sample.
mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)