A remarkable discovery made at a market in Myanmar has turned out to be that of a dinosaur tail in amber, preserved with feathers and all.
One of the most significant dinosaur discoveries ever came by accident, while a researcher from China strolled through an amber market in Myanmar last year.
Spotting a chunk with some feathers inside, Lida Xing, from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, immediately knew something was up.
The seller thought it was just amber, the size of a dried apricot, with perhaps some plant fragments trapped inside. Xing thought otherwise, secured the deal without letting on (which would have pushed up the price), and began taking a closer look.
Realising the trapped elements were feathered remains from a vertebrate, Xing sent it off for further tests. The results were remarkable – Xing was right.
Dating from around 99m years ago, the remains are from a non-avialan theropod that existed during the Cretaceous era which Ryan McKellar, co-author of the paper published in Current Biology, calls a “once-in-a-lifetime find”.
A palaeontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada, McKellar couldn’t believe what he saw through the microscope at first glance.
“The finest details are visible and in three dimensions,” he said, explaining the material is of a tail consisting of eight vertebrae from a juvenile, surrounded by 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,” he said, claiming that rather than a bird, this is really from a dinosaur.
The team think the colours of the tail were chestnut-brown on the upper surface, and paler beneath, but the evolution of feathers seems to be what most excites the palaeontologists.
The feathers lack a well-developed central shaft, or rachis. Their structure suggests that the two finest tiers of branching in modern feathers, known as barbs and barbules, arose before a rachis formed.
“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 want to make additional finds from this region, wondering how it could “reshape our understanding of plumage and soft tissues in dinosaurs and other vertebrates”.
And all because of a trip to an amber market, and an unwitting salesperson.