We’ve all heard the stories of someone going to a yard sale and finding something valuable amidst all the junk. Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences (Beijing) had a yard sale moment.
Xing was at an amber market in Myitkyina, Myanmar in 2015 when he saw the piece of amber making headlines today. The people selling it thought it was just some kind of plant matter. Xing knew it was much more than that and suggested the Dexu Institute of Paleontology buy the chunk of amber.
With an assist from Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada and other researchers, the group took a closer look. A CT scanner and microscope teased details of what was encased in amber about 99 million years ago. The feathered tail surrounded in amber is believed to belong to a small coelurosaur.
Credit: Chung-tat Cheung and Yi Liu
“The new material preserves a tail consisting of eight vertebrae from a juvenile; these are surrounded by feathers that are preserved in 3D and with microscopic detail,” McKellar said in a statement.
Analysis of the feathered tail points to it a chestnut-brown upper surface with a pale or white underside. The feathers’ structure doesn’t have the well-developed central shaft seen in modern birds. But features seen in modern birds, called barbs and barbules, were present. That suggests those features were present early on in the evolution of feathers.
“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. Instead, the tail is long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side,” adds McKellar.
Researchers were also able to see traces of ferrous iron in the soft tissue layer around the bones. It’s what is left from the hemoglobin trapped within the amber millions of years ago.
These findings point to why amber is an important piece when studying the creatures lost to time. “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,” said McKellar.
Going forward, the researchers hope to find more pieces of amber with similar samples. More samples like the one above “will reshape our understanding of plumage and soft tissues in dinosaurs and other vertebrates.”
Featured Image Credit: Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/R.C. McKellar)