While most paleontologists dig up prehistoric bones from the ground, Lida Xing hunts for fossils in the amber markets of Myanmar. In 2015, he made a remarkable find: Trapped in what looked like golden glass was the feathered tail of a dinosaur.
Along with the primitive plumage, the 99-million-year-old amber also preserved soft tissue and eight complete vertebrae. The tail bones indicated that the specimen belonged to a dinosaur that was not a prehistoric bird and also provided researchers with insight into the evolution of feathers.
“This is the first time that skeletal material from a dinosaur has been found in amber,” Dr. Xing, who is a paleontologist at China University of Geosciences in Beijing, said in an email. He and his colleagues published their findings Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
After performing a CT scan and microscopic analysis, Dr. Xing and his colleagues realized that the feathers did not belong to a bird because the specimen’s tail vertebrae were not fused into a rod, as they are in modern birds. The feathers most likely belonged to a baby nonavian theropod, meaning it looked more similar to a velociraptor or Tyrannosaurus rex than to a modern bird. That said, it was probably only about the size of a sparrow.
After death, the tiny dinosaur’s body was most likely covered in tree resin. The resin is produced as a defense mechanism against insect infestations. When it dries it becomes a plasticlike substance that can survive for millions of years.
“Once the resin leaks out on the side of the tree it’s like a big sticky trap waiting for anything to fall into it,” said Ryan McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada and an author of the study. “Then once the next resin falls on top of the existing one, it seals it in.”
After Dr. Xing found the amber, he sent it to Dr. McKellar, an amber expert, to further investigate the specimen.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Nicholas St. Fleur