When in doubt, go with dinosaurs!
As I have commented before, when I was a lad first interested in dinosaurs, the idea that feathers, skin, and other soft tissue might be preserved in fossils was considered remote to the point of fantasy. We would never have the data, and we would never know what dinosaurs looked like (or sounded like).
But we are now in a great age of fossil discovery, with new discoveries everyday, including well preserved tissue and many specimens with skin and feathers.
This month the buzz is about yet another find preserved in amber, which includes the feathered tail of an animal that lived in the Mid-Cretaceous (circa 99 million years ago) . Found in Myanmar, this is yet another fabulous specimen emerging from this corner of Asia.
Fossils in amber can be beautifully preserved, and the this one certainly has extremely complete remnants of the feathers, revealing microscopic details. The specimen is especially informative, too, because it is preserved as a whole, with the skeleton, traces of flesh, and feathers together suggesting the structure of the living animal.
“With preservation in amber, the finest details of feathers are visible in three dimensions, providing concrete evidence for feather morphologies and arrangement upon the tail” (p. 7)
The researchers interpret this as part of the tail of a non-avian dinosaur, likely a juvenile. As such, it is not known whether the structure or color of the feathers might represent the appearance of the adult, or might have molted as the animal matured.
In any case, this individual had brown feathers, nearly white underneath. The feathers themselves are somewhat “primitive” looking, they are not specialized for flight, and similar throughout the length of the tail. Again, this could be juvenile plumage, or it might represent the adult appearance, we don’t know.
With the growing accumulation of fossil remains, we are gaining a much more detailed picture of the complicated story of feathered dinosaurs, both early avians and non-avians. Part of the story is the long history of feathers, which we now know have been evolving for 100 million years or more. (See the article for some detailed discussion of feather evolution.)
- Lida Xing, Ryan C. McKellar, Xing Xu, Gang Li, Ming Bai, W. Scott I. V. Persons, Tetsuto Miyashita, Michael J. Benton, Jianping Zhang, Alexander P. Wolfe, Qiru Yi, Kuowei Tseng, Hao Ran, and Philip J. Currie, A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber. Current Biology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008
(PS. Wouldn’t “feather evolution” be a good name for a band?)