Scientists are fascinated by what looks to be a historic first – a fully-preserved dinosaur tail in amber that also includes bones, soft tissue, and the creature’s feathers.
According to National Geographic, this isn’t the first time that dinosaur feathers were preserved in amber and later discovered. But this marks the first time that researchers have been able to link intact preserved feathers with a specific species of dinosaur. And it could lead to a much greater understanding of how dinosaur feathers evolved over time.
The dinosaur tail is believed to be 99 million years old, dating back to the mid-Cretaceous era. It was described as being similar in size and shape to a dried apricot, and measures about 1.4 inches in length, with a chestnut brown hue and a “pale or white” underside. The researchers claim that the fossil represents one of the earliest points of divergence between dinosaur feathers and those of flying birds.
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A separate report from the Christian Science Monitor describes the apparent evolution process, where modern birds of flight have a “three-tiered branching structure,” with the rachis, or central shaft, located in the middle of long feathers. Modern bird feathers also come with tiny barbules extending from barbs that in turn extend from the rachis, and as these barbules “interlock like Velcro” and fuse all feathers together that makes them more predisposed for flight and other purposes.
Study co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum told the Christian Science Monitor about the peculiarities in the preserved dinosaur tail’s feathers that made them so different from modern feathers.
“In this specimen, we’re seeing barbs that are looking like they’re branching off of each other.”
National Geographic states that the tail may have belonged to a young coelurosaur, a dinosaur that’s part of the theropod family that also includes tyrannosaurs and the ancestors of modern birds. But was this creature a flying dinosaur, given the presence of feathers?
As the dinosaur tail came with articulated vertebrae, that eliminated the chance that it belonged to an early bird. As National Geographic noted, modern birds and their ancestors from the Cretaceous era had pygostyles, or fused vertebrae in their tails that allowed unified movement in the tail feathers. McKellar describes the pygostyle as a feature that “you (may have seen) if you’ve ever prepared a turkey.”
Given the lack of definition in the rachis and its peculiar design, the researchers concluded that the dinosaur tail feathers are “more similar to modern ornamental feathers” to those designed for flight. As mentioned above, flight feathers have better feature definition in the rachis, barbs, and barbules, optimizing them for the birds that carry them.
The researchers believe that if the dinosaur tail was completely covered with the type of feathers found preserved in the amber, that would have prevented the coelurosaur from flying. McKellar said that the feathers, if not used for flight, may have been used for temperature regulation, or “served a signaling function.”
In all, the new study on the dinosaur tail and its feathers is consistent with an evolution model created in the 1990s by Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Prum theorized that there are five stages in feather evolution, starting with a mere filament in stage 1, and moving on to stage 2, which includes multiple filaments, also known as barbs. Once at stage 3, the model diverges, with stage 3a representing a rachis with barbs extending off it, and stage 3b featuring smaller barbules, but no rachis. This combines to form stage 3a+b later on, including feathers with a rachis, barbs, and barbules. And once at stage 4 and stage 5, the barbules become more complex and similar to those on today’s birds of flight.
Prum, who was not involved with the new study, told the Christian Science Monitor that the preserved dinosaur tail’s feathers are consistent with stage 3a+b feathers in his model.
“Maybe the fact that it does have barbules on its rachis may indicate that its rachis identity has not proceeded to that strong stage, but I don’t see it as separate.”
[Featured Image by Wollertz/Shutterstock]