Biology professor helps in rare discovery of feathered dinosaur tail in amber

By Costa Maragos Posted: December 8, 2016 12:00 p.m.

Dr. Ryan Mc Kellar showing off some of the amber pieces with Dr. Lida Xing.
Dr. Ryan Mc Kellar showing off some of the amber pieces with Dr. Lida Xing. Photo courtesy of Sheena Wang

A glittering piece of amber, once destined for a person’s jewelry collection, has instead offered a rare glimpse of a feathered dinosaur tail. Details of this discovery have now been made public in the prestigious journal, “Current Biology.”

One of the co-authors of the report is Dr. Ryan McKellar, adjunct professor in the biology department and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM).

Amber Feather
Here is a close up view of the feathered tail of a non-avian dinosaur preserved in the amber from about 99 million years ago. Courtesy of the RSM

The paper outlines the first discovery of the dinosaur tail preserved in amber and provides insight into the evolution of prehistoric feathers. While this isn’t the first time feathers have been found in amber, earlier specimens have been difficult to link to their source animal.

“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,” says McKellar. “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.”

McKellar and his team at the RSM played a critical role in the research. The museum is one of a few facilities in the world where this type of fossil feather research can take place.

“We used the specialized photography and microscopy set up at the RSM to do most of the detailed specimen study, while the bones and specimen chemistry were studied using synchrotrons in China,” says McKellar. “The synchrotron scans allowed us to see the outlines of the bones, and how the feathers attached to the skin.”

The researchers conclude that the specimen represents the feathered tail of a non-avian dinosaur preserved in the amber from about 99 million years ago.

Illustration by Chung-tat Cheu.

The study’s first author, Dr. Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, discovered the remarkable specimen at an amber market in Myitkyina, Myanmar in 2015. Xing recognized the amber piece’s potential scientific importance and suggested that the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology purchase the specimen.

Upon further discovery, the feathers suggest that the tail has a chestnut-brown upper surface and a pale or white underside. The piece offers insight into feather evolution and shows the value of amber as a supplement to the fossil record.

“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 says. “This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity and protecting as a fossil resource.”

The researchers are now eager to see how additional finds from this region will reshape our understanding of plumage and soft tissues in dinosaurs and other vertebrates.

Funding for the research was made possible in part from the Chinese Academy of Science and other funding partners in China, a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant, and the National Sciences Engineering Research Council of Canada.