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How Did Scientists Know Dinosaurs Were Covered in Feathers?

Back in 2011, several samples of amber were discovered to contain preserved feathers assumed to be 75 to 80 million years old. Further evidence shows that these feathers originated from both birds and dinosaurs. 

Scientists were able to find the tail of a 99-million-year-old dinosaur preserved in amber, complete with bones, soft tissue, and even feathers. This led to the theory that dinosaurs had feathers.

The Discovery of a Feathered Dinosaur Tail

The one-of-a-kind discovery adds flesh to the bones of these extinct creatures, opening a new window into the biology of a group that dominated Earth for more than 160 million years.

The expeditions council of the National Geographic Society helped fund the research, which was led by paleontologist Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences. The semi-translucent mid-Cretaceous amber sample, about the size and shape of dried apricot, shows one of the earliest stages of feather differentiation between birds of flight and dinosaur feathers.

It was a 1.4-inch appendage coated in delicate feathers, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underbelly, found inside the lump of resin. CT scans and microscopic inspection of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, slender tail that may have had more than 25 vertebrae at one time.

Based on its anatomy, researchers believe the tail belongs to a juvenile coelurosaur, a type of theropod dinosaur that includes everything from tyrannosaurs to modern birds. (Source: National Geographic)

Could the Feathered Dinosaurs Fly?

Researchers were able to rule out the idea that the feathers belonged to a prehistoric bird due to the presence of articulated tail vertebrae in the sample.  A pygostyle is a collection of fused tail vertebrae seen in modern birds and their closest Cretaceous predecessors that allows tail feathers to move as a single unit.

A pygostyle is the sort of thing you’ve seen if you’ve ever prepared a turkey. 

Ryan McKellar, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, Canada’s Royal Saskatchewan Museum

The dinosaur feathers have a keel on each side of the tail and a poorly defined rachis which is at the center shaft. The feathers’ open, flexible structure is more like current ornamental feathers than flight feathers, which have well-defined central shafts, branches, sub-branches, and hooks that hold the structure together.

Cretaceous-era bird wings preserved in amber revealed feathers remarkably similar to modern bird flight feathers, according to a report published in June of this year by the same research team.

According to McKellar, if the dinosaur’s entire tail were covered in the type of feathers seen in the sample, the dinosaur would likely have been incapable of flying. Instead, the feathers may have performed a signaling function or played a part in temperature control. (Source: National Geographic)

Where Did They Find the Fossil?

The amber came from a mine in Kachin state, northern Myanmar, in the Hukawng Valley. This region’s amber most likely contains the greatest diversity of Cretaceous animal and plant life on the planet. The amber sample had been polished for jewelry when they realized it concealed a greater treasure. (Source: National Geographic)

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