Released on December 8, 2016
Ryan McKellar, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM), has co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal, “Current Biology”. The paper outlines the first discovery of a dinosaur tail preserved in amber and provides insight into the evolution of feathers. Discovered in Myanmar in 2015, the specimen was originally destined to become a curiosity or piece of jewelry.
It was purchased from an amber market by McKellar’s colleague Lida Xing, China University of Geosciences, who recognized its potential scientific importance. Within the amber, visible to the naked eye are a dense covering of feathers protruding from a tail segment which includes eight vertebrae and part of a ninth. Colleagues in China used a Synchrotron Radiation (SR) X-ray scan which enabled them to identify soft tissue, likely muscles, ligaments, and skin, as well as trace amounts of ferrous iron indicating that relics of hemoglobin remain trapped within the tail.
“We used the specialized photography and microscopy setup at the RSM to do most of the detailed specimen study, while the bones and specimen chemistry were studied using synchrotrons in China,” McKellar said. “The synchrotron scans allowed us to see the outlines of the bones, and how the feathers attached to the skin. The bone shapes showed that this tail was long and flexible which is unlike the tail type present in modern birds and their close relatives.”
What makes this specimen particularly unique is that although these feathers are not the first to be found in amber, most other discoveries have been challenging to link to their source animal. This specimen unquestionably represents the feathered tail of a non-avian dinosaur preserved in the amber from about 99 million years ago. The RSM is one of only a few facilities in the world where this type of fossil feather research is taking place.
McKellar and his colleagues at the museum, work on amber from dinosaur bone beds across the prairie provinces. They are looking for insects and ecological details and hope to someday find comparable specimens.
McKellar has broad interests in palaeontology, however his current research is focused primarily on amber inclusions and composition. He believes there is tremendous value in amber as a supplement to the fossil record of dinosaurs.
“This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity, and protecting as a fossil resource,” McKellar said.
This project was funded in part by a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant.
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