First Ever Dinosaur Tail Tissue Found Covered with Feathers
© 2016 by Linda Moulton Howe
“The more we see these feathered dinosaurs and how widespread
the feathers are, things like a scaly velociraptor seem less and less likely
and they've become a lot more bird-like in the overall view.”
- Ryan McKellar, Ph.D., Paleontologist,
Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Canada
Feathers on actual tail skeletal tissue of a young coelurosaurian dinosaur. Half the tail was trapped in amber 99 million years ago. This is the first discovery of dinosaur feathers on tissue and reinforces
the mind-bending evidence that many dinosaurs had feathers instead of reptilian scales.
Image by Royal Saskatchewan Museum/R. C. McKellar.
December 21, 2016 Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada - On March 9, 2002, Earthfiles reported about a controversial hypothesis that dinosaurs might have had feathers, including Tyrannosaurus rex. The idea that the “monster meat eater” would have bird-like plumage was nearly impossible to imagine. See Websites below.
This Tyrannosaurus rex had 60 razor sharp teeth that could grow up to 9 inches long.
Thought to be one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs to ever walk on Earth,
the Tyrannosaurus stood some 20 feet tall, was about 40 feet long from head to tail
tip and weighed around 7 tons. The T-Rex, as it is also known, could chomp down
on at least 500 pounds of meat in one bite! It could also run 18 mph. Now scientists
know that the T-rex also had feathers. Tyrannosaurus rex illustration © 2011 by Paul Heaston.
But now in December 2016, that controversy has ended with the first reported discovery of actual dinosaur tail skeletal tissue covered with feathers preserved inside amber found in a Myanmar amber mine in the Hugawng valley of the Danai region near the China border. Until now, only feather pieces detached from body parts had been found in amber. When paleontologist Lida Xing at the China University of Geosciences saw the apricot-sized piece of amber with an ant and a 1.4-inch section of tail covered with fine feathers, he knew it was finally the body evidence everyone had hoped to find. He worked with Ryan McKellar, Ph.D., Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who is an insect specialist.
The Hukawng Valley in Myanmar (Burma) has the largest
known 99-million-old amber mines on Earth. In addition to the major
discovery of dinosaur tail tissue and feathers preserved in amber from one
of the mines, in 2006, a fossil of the earliest known species of bee was
discovered encased in amber taken from a Hukawng Valley mine.
The structure of the tail suggested to Prof. Xing and Prof. McKellar that it had been part of a young coelurosaur [ suh-LEER-uh-sore ] body in illustration below, a type of theropod dinosaur that ranged from sparrow-sized creatures like this one all the way up to 7-ton Tyrannosaurus rex.
Hukawng Valley amber mining in Myanmar (Burma) near China border.
Sparrow-sized Coelurosaur Maniraptora with a long, feathered tail next to resin-coated
tree branch in upper left. December 8, 2016, illustration by Chung-tat Cheung after
discovery of feathered tissue from half a coelurosaur tail preserved in
amber discovered in a Myanmar amber market.
[ Editor's Note: Maniraptorans are characterized by long arms and three-fingered hands. Several groups of maniraptorans had bird-like backwards-pointing hip bones.]
National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council funded part of the research and reported that “the presence of articulated tail vertebrae in the amber enabled researchers to rule out the possibility that the feathers belonged to a prehistoric bird. Modern birds and their closest Cretaceous ancestors feature a set of fused tail vertebrae called a pygostyle that enables tail feathers to move as a single unit. The dinosaur feather structure is open, flexible and similar to modern ornamental feathers.”
In fact, the analysis of the tail with micro-CT scans showed feather details that meant “the dinosaur would likely have been incapable of flight.” I wanted to understand why warm climate dinosaurs would ever have developed feathers. So I contacted Prof. Ryan McKellar, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Ryan McKellar, Ph.D., Curator of Invertebrate
Palaeontology, Royal Saskatchewan Museum,
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Ryan McKellar, Ph.D., Paleontologist, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: “And what makes this so special is that it is the first time we’re seeing dinosaur skeletal material along side of the skin or plumage.
Micro-CT scans above and below of the delicate feathers attached to 99-million-year-old young coelurosaurian skeletal tissue that measured 1.4 inches long, half the dinosaur's tail
found preserved in amber. Micro-CT scans by Lida Xing.
ISN’T THIS INCREDIBLE THAT YOU HAVE FEATHERS ON THE TAIL TISSUE OF AN ACTUAL DINOSAUR FROM 99 MILLION YEARS AGO?
Spectacular! A researcher from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing had been visiting amber markets in Myanmar for a couple of years looking for things like feathers and lizards in amber. The only groups you are going to see feathers in are dinosaurs and modern descendants — birds.
So as soon as he saw the feathers, he knew for sure that he was dealing with something that was scientifically important and sort of a first!
THAT WAS MY IMPRESSION, THAT THERE’S NEVER BEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS, WHICH IS 3-DIMENSIONAL PROOF OF DINOSAUR TISSUE ATTACHED TO TAIL FEATHERS PRESERVED IN AMBER.
Yes, it provides that concrete example. We get to see the finest levels of detail. So, things like little micrometer scale structures on the sides of the feathers that provide support. Or how pigments are distributed in the feathers that give it the sense of color overall.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT HAVE GROWN UP LOVING THE IDEA OF LIZARD DINOSAURS?
The kids books that I’ve been reading with my kids have made a shift already. They are looking at some of the theropod dinosaurs, or small bi-pedal dinosaurs as being fuzzy animals.
[ Editor’s Note: Theropods from Greek "wild beast" and "foot" are a group of saurischian dinosaurs. Theropods first appeared during the Carnian age of the late Triassic period 231.4 million years ago and included the sole large terrestrial carnivores from the Early Jurassic until at least the close of the Cretaceous, about 66 million years ago when dinosaurs went extinct, allegedly because a large asteroid impacted in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Jurassic, birds evolved from small specialized coelurosaurian theropods.]
I think it’s a question of how quickly Hollywood representations of this sort of stuff catches up, but we’re getting there. A lot of the museum exhibits and a lot of the children’s books that I’ve seen recently have had fuzzy dinosaurs or feathered dinosaurs. The more specimens we see with high quality preservations, the more we get the sense of feathered bird-like dinosaurs as opposed to scaly Godzilla-style monsters.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE TYRANNOSAURUS REX WAS COVERED BY FEATHERS?
Potentially at some life stage. Another large Tyrannosaurus-type animal called Yutyrannus has some bristles running down its back and it’s basically a Tyrannosaurus or equivalent.
[ Editor’s Note: Yutyrannus, means "feathered tyrant,” a genus of tyrannosauroid dinosaurs that contains a single known species, Yutyrannus huali. This species lived during the early Cretaceous period in what is now northeastern China. Three fossils of Y. huali — all found in the rock beds of Liaoning Province — are currently the largest known dinosaur specimens that preserve direct evidence of feathers.]
Why Feathers On Dinosaurs?
WE THINK OF THE DINOSAUR TIME AS BEING WARM AND THAT THERE WAS NO NEED TO HAVE HAIR, FUR OR FEATHERS. SO WHAT PURPOSE DO YOU THINK THAT FEATHERS WOULD HAVE SERVED DINOSAURS ALL OVER THIS PLANET — SOME OF THOSE DINOSAURS BEING HUGE?
Well, I think tropical birds might be a good example. There are a lot of groups that use feathers either for camouflage or visual signalling. I think that’s what we’re seeing with the weird shading pattern in this particular specimen. Or for startling predators. Or it might have been something used only in juvenile stages to provide a little bit of more insulation or something.
My best guess would be something along the lines of either camouflage or signalling or insulation. I don’t think flight would have been the initial push for developing feathers.
And I’m guessing that a lot of these animals may have had some sort of plumage as juveniles to blend in with their surroundings or insulation.
DOESN’T THIS SORT OF DO A NUMBER ON YOUR MIND ABOUT ALL OF OUR HISTORY ABOUT DINOSAURS?
Oh, certainly! But it’s one of those shifts that’s not much different from thinking about dinosaurs as slow, lumbering animals that drag their tails on the ground and the more we look at these as bird-like animals, the more energetic and charismatic they get. They are not as terrifying as people would have thought originally, but they are also a lot more interesting.
IN WHAT WAY?
I think of them as more active, maybe a little bit more visually cute. So these feathers might have been used for things like visual signalling to attract mates or to help them escape from predators, as opposed to just being some giant, scary beast.
TELL US ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW OF THIS DINOSAUR.
It’s a difficult to pronounce group called Coelurosaurs [ suh-LEER-uh-sores ]. And it’s actually a wide group of dinosaurs that captures everything from Tyrannosaurus rex all the way to modern birds. And the sub-set that we’re looking at would be near the bottom of this group and it would include in terms of body shapes, you’re looking at dinosaurs that would have been shaped like a Tyrannosaurus or like a Velociraptor.
Dinosaur of the Coelurosaur and Maniraptora family
of theropods illustrated with feathers.
[ Editor’s Note: Coelurosauria from Greek, meaning “hollow tailed lizards,” contains all theropod dinosaurs more closely related to birds than to carnosaurs. One of its subgroups, Maniraptora, includes birds, the only dinosaur group alive today in about 10,000 bird species. Most feathered dinosaurs discovered so far have been coelurosaurs. It is probable that all coelurosaurs were feathered. ]
Lower left hypothetical illustration of velociraptor covered by feathers.
[ Editor’s Note: Velociraptor, meaning “swift seizer” in Latin, is a genus of dromaeosaurid theropod dinosaur that lived approximately 75 to 71 million years ago during the later part of the Cretaceous Period. Velociraptor was a bipedal, feathered carnivore with a long tail and an enlarged sickle-shaped claw on each hindfoot, which is thought to have been used to tackle prey. Velociraptor is one of the dinosaur genera most familiar to the general public due to its prominent role in the Jurassic Park motion picture series.]
Prof. McKellar: “You would have had a small bi-pedal dinosaur, except in this case you would have had feathers running down the length of the body and in this specimen (Coelurosaur partial tail in amber), we’re seeing sheets of feathers coming off the sides of the tail.
Feathers on actual tail skeletal tissue of a young coelurosaurian dinosaur. Half the small tail
of the likely sparrow-sized-dinosaur was trapped in amber 99 million years ago.
Image by Royal Saskatchewan Museum/R. C. McKellar.
And where you look at the pigmentation in the feathers, you can see that the underside of the tail is white and the upper surface of the tail is sort of a chocolate brown color.
SO I’M HEARING BROWN, WHITE, OTHER COLORS, FEATHERS! WERE THERE ANY GREEN LEATHERY DINOSAURS?
To the best of my knowledge, no. Although that’s going to be one of the harder colors to preserve in terms of the colors that are represented — browns or blacks or greys.
THE SMALL DINOSAUR WOULD HAVE BEEN ABOUT HOW BIG AND WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN DOING 99 MILLION YEARS AGO?
In this case, we’ve got a juvenile specimen, we think. From the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, we’re probably talking about something between 10 and 15 centimeters long.
SO, THE WHOLE TAIL LENGTH OF THE SMALL YOUNG DINOSAUR THAT WAS TRAPPED IN THE AMBER WOULD HAVE BEEN ABOUT 4 TO 6 INCHES LONG?
Yes, I guess so. The section of tail that we found preserved was only 3.5 centimeters long and it contained almost half of the tail. So we’re talking about an individual that was probably not much bigger than a sparrow! And in this case, it looks as thought it might have come into contact with the resin while it was still alive, or shortly after it died, and then was trapped by the next flow of resin.
HOW DO YOU THINK THIS AMBER CAME TO TRAP THIS TAIL? WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN GOING ON?
Well, judging from the insects that are trapped in this same piece of amber, we think we’re dealing with a sample that came from the side of a tree and a little bit above ground height. We don’t have soil particles or a lot of leaf litter in the sample, so we don’t think we are actually on the forest floor. We think we’re part way up the tree. So that may mean the animal was scrambling around in the tree; or may have brushed up against the side of a tree and gotten trapped.
Climate Change 99 Million Years Ago That
Stressed Trees to Produce More
Resin to Ward Off Insects?
DO YOU THINK SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING IN THE CLIMATE AT EXACTLY THIS TIME THAT WOULD HAVE CAUSED AN OOZING OF SAP MORE THAN NORMAL AND THAT’S WHY THERE WAS ALL THIS TRAPPING OF THE FEATHERS AND THE INSECTS?
Some of these amber deposits are thought to have been created by things like boring beetle infestations; or flooding of forests causing the trees to exude a lot of resin. Resin is basically their defense product to shield themselves from insects boring in or bacteria and fungi invading the wood. So, a large scale event can create fairly large amber deposit over a wide area that gets preserved. It’s like Nature’s plastic.
SO FLOODING WOULD CAUSE THE TREES TO RELEASE RESIN?
Yes, it happens in modern forests.
WHY DO THE TREES REACT WITH LETTING GO OF RESIN?
A stress response. So, you’ll see it in trees that are being attacked and also trees that are having problems controlling their water balance in some cases.
AND SO THIS REGION OF MYANMAR ON THE CHINA BORDER IS THE RICHEST KNOWN AMBER ON THE PLANET IN WHICH THERE ARE SO MANY INSECTS AND NOW EVEN THE PARTIAL FEATHERY TAIL OF A DINOSAUR ENCASED IN AMBER?
Yes. It’s the best place to study Cretaceous — or mid-Cretaceous — ecosystems.
IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CLIMATE 99 MILLION YEARS AGO.
Did Brontosaurus Have Feathers, Too?
Brontosaurus meaning in Greek "thunder lizard" is a genus of sauropod dinosaurs.
As the archetypal sauropod, Brontosaurus is one of the best-known dinosaurs, and has
been featured in film, advertising, and postal stamps, as well as many other types of media.
An extensive study published in 2015 by a joint British-Portuguese research team concluded
that Brontosaurus was a valid genus of sauropod distinct from Apatosaurus.
NOW, THE BRONTOSAURUS IS ONE OF THE LARGEST OF ALL KNOWN DINOSAURS THAT ONCE LIVED ON EARTH, AND IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DEPICTED SINCE I WAS A KID IN GRADE SCHOOL AS BEING SMOOTH FROM BIG LONG TAIL TO HEAD. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE REALITY WAS?
For that particular group, my impression is that we’re still dealing with a bare skinned animal. A lot of the theropods, or meat-eating dinosaurs — the bi-pedal ones like Tyrannosaurus — we’re seeing mounting evidence that those groups, a large number of them, had feathers at some life stage. And we’ve had some hints that feathers might have been a little bit more widespread. Might see them in groups like some of the Ceratopsians, or horned dinosaurs.
[ Editor’s Note: Ceratopsia or Ceratopia from Greek meaning “horned faces" is a group of herbivorous, beaked dinosaurs that thrived in what are now North America, Europe, and Asia, during the Cretaceous Period, although ancestral forms lived earlier, in the Jurassic. The earliest known ceratopsian, Yinlong downsi, lived between 161.2 and 155.7 million years ago. The last ceratopsian species, Triceratops prorsus, became extinct during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, 66 million years ago. ]
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR OWN FIRST REACTION AT THE EVIDENCE THAT INSTEAD OF SCALES DINOSAURS HAD FEATHERS?
Oh, geez! It was one of those things that sort of popped up as I was going through university and wove its way into university courses fairly quickly. So I don’t know if I would have had the same exposure that most of the public has. Movies like Jurassic Park have done fantastic things for how the public perceived dinosaurs because they have given them that more active, athletic portrayal that is more accurate to how paleontologists understand them. The only thing they are missing in this case is the plumage and I think that will slowly work its way into mainstream media as well.
I THINK THAT ONE OF THE SCARIEST SCENES OF ALL TIME IN HOLLYWOOD FILMS ARE THE VELOCIRAPTORS IN STEPHEN SPIELBERG’S FILM (JURASSIC PARK, 1993). WHAT IS YOUR NEW REALITY IN THE 21ST CENTURY PERSPECTIVE ON VELOCIRAPTORS?
The velociraptors in the kitchen scene of Jurassic Park first released
on June 9, 1993, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Amblin Entertainment.
Well, you’ve probably got something that would have had feathers off its arms at least. So we have skeletons of velociraptors where there are little knobs — or they are called ‘quill-knobs.’ They are attachment points for feathers on the arms. So, we’ve got indication even in that group that we have some sort of feather coat.
I don’t think they would be any less terrifying if they had feathers on them. I would not like to be chased even by an ostrich! So, it changes my view of them a little bit, but ultimately it doesn’t change what they were or what they did.
THEY WERE SCARY PREDATORS, BUT INSTEAD OF BEING SLEEK, SCARY, STANDING REPTILES THAT SPIELBERG PORTRAYED, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN FEATHERY.
66 Million Years Ago — Why Dinosaur Extinction?
IF WE GO BACK 66 MILLION YEARS TO THE CRASH OF THE 6-MILE-WIDE METEORITE IN THE GULF OF MEXICO ON THE NORTHERN COAST OF THE YUCATAN WHERE THEY CALL IT THE CHICXULUB CRATER UNDERNEATH THE WATER. AND THE HYPOTHESIS IS THAT THE IMPACT IS WHAT CAUSED THE EXTINCTION OF THE DINOSAURS. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY THEY ALL WOULD HAVE GONE EXTINCT FROM SOMETHING LIKE THAT?
To be honest with you, I don’t know. It looks — based on our impression from the North American fossil record that many of the groups were on their way out before. And some of the work in Saskatchewan is actually focused on that sort of question. At around the same time, we’re also seeing coniferous plants being largely replaced by flowering plants. There’s a question of what else is going on in the background? Was the meteorite impact just the last straw?
WHAT IS THE HYPOTHESIS ABOUT WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN HAPPENING 66 MILLION YEARS AGO THAT THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN A CHANGE FROM CONIFER TO FLOWERY?
You’re seeing a large change in ecosystems. There are other things going on at the same time like large-scale volcanic eruptions in places like India, creating huge, huge volcanic fields. The final death knell for the dinosaurs would have been the asteroid impact. It would have had a huge effect on food webs and also change things like temperature and sunlight levels.”
66 million years ago a large asteroid or comet at least 6 miles (10 km) in diameter slammed
into Earth at the northern end of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Chicxulub crater and is some 110 miles wide (180 km)
and at least 12 miles (20 km) deep. It's the third largest
confirmed impact on Earth. Map by Wikipedia.
Also see: • 03/09/2002 — Dinosaur Feathers - Even On Tyrannosaurus rex?