The tail of a dinosaur has been found in a small piece of amber in Myanmar, bones, soft tissue, feathers and all. It’s the first of its kind to ever be found – a 99-million-year-old feather tail from a dinosaur the size of a sparrow, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underside.
The discovery was made in an amber market in Myitkina, Myanmar and had already been polished for jewellery. The seller had thought the feathers in the amber, the size and shape of a dried apricot, was plant material but Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing recognised it as a fossil.
Dr Ryan McKellar, of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada said the tail's anatomy showed it definitely belonged to a feathered dinosaur and not an ancient bird.
"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," he explained.
"Instead, the tail is long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side."
Dr McKellar said there are signs the dinosaur still contained fluids when it was incorporated into the tree resin that eventually formed the amber. This indicates that it could even have become trapped in the sticky substance while it was still alive.
Unfortunately, there’s a chance that there was more to the specimen than what was found but it may have been destroyed in the mining process.
"The larger amber pieces often get broken up in the mining process. By the time we see them they have often been turned into things like jewellery. We never know how much of the specimen has been missed," said Dr McKellar.
"If you had a complete specimen, for example, you could look at how feathers were arranged across the whole body. Or you could look at other soft tissue features that don't usually get preserved."
He concluded that if the dinosaur’s whole body had been covered in the same feathers it would have been unlikely that it could fly and instead they were probably used for signalling or temperature regulation.
The piece was one of more than a dozen amber samples with significant evidence that were collected by Xing and his research team in 2015 at the amber market in Myitkyina
Two of the other samples contained dinosaur bird wings.