Telltale Tail Trapped in Amber

SCIENCE

To scientists’ delight, they’ve identified the first dinosaur tail preserved in amber. The incredible appendage from 99 million years ago is covered in feathers. (Nat Geo News)

Learn a little about amazing amber with our study guide.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

Like other gemstones, amber must first be polished before being incorporated into its most popular use, in jewelry. Photograph by Lanzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Like other gemstones, amber must first be polished before being incorporated into its most popular use, in jewelry.
Photograph by Lanzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

  • Scientists just identified a dinosaur tail preserved in amber. What is amber? Take a look at our study guide for some help.
    • Amber is a substance created by resin, a type of liquid produced by trees. (Resin is not sap, another type of liquid created by trees.) Resin, a protective substance, oozes out of trees when they are cut or threatened by insects or fungi. Dripping resin can sometimes trap seeds, feathers, and even animals such as ants or mosquitoes in its viscous goo.
    • Not all resin becomes amber. Organic substances such as resin are usually broken down by weather (such as extreme temperature changes or rain) and decomposers in the food web (such as bacteria and fungi). For resin to become amber, it must resist such decay. It must also undergo tremendous pressure, similar to the process that creates petroleum from other organic substances. Seams or globules of amber are mostly pressurized beneath tons of marine or terrestrial sediment.

 

Grasshopper in Amber

As anyone who has seen or read Jurassic Park knows by now, amber is an outstanding preserver of prehistoric fossils, like this Jurassic grasshopper.
Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

  • Most organisms trapped in amber are small insects, such as flies or ants. How did a dinosaur get stuck?
    • The whole dinosaur didn’t get stuck—just its tail did. (Ouch.)
    • It was probably a small dinosaur to start with—scientists think it was a juvenile coelurosaur, which was about the size of a sparrow.
    • The baby dinosaur was probably dead when resin dripped down and covered the tail. (The skin on the tail is desiccated, indicating it had shriveled before encapsulation in the resin.) However, “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.” (Ouch.)

 

dinotail The dinosaur’s tail was “long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side,” says the study’s co-author, Ryan McKellar. “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Lida Xing et. al Current BiologyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008 © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

The dinosaur’s tail was “long and flexible, with keels of feathers running down each side,” says the study’s co-author, Ryan McKellar.
“A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Lida Xing et. al Current BiologyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008 © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

  • How do scientists know the specimen is the feathered tail of a dinosaur, and not the feathered tail of a bird?
    • telltale tail. The sample tail has “eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae.” The tails of modern birds do not have spine-like vertebrae. They have a single set of fused vertebrae called a pygostyle.
    • telltale feathers. Feathers in the sample lack the amazing geometry of modern bird feathers: the well-defined central shaft (rachis), branches, sub-branches, and hooks that latch the structure together and allow the bird to fly.

 

The open, flexible structure of the pretty dinosaur feathers is more similar to modern ornamental feathers than to flight feathers. In particular, there are structural similarities to the feathers of some Anseriformes—a modern order of birds that includes ducks and geese. Weird. “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Lida Xing et. al Current BiologyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008 © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

The open, flexible structure of the pretty dinosaur feathers is more similar to modern ornamental feathers than to flight feathers. In particular, there are structural similarities to the feathers of some Anseriformes—a modern order of birds that includes ducks and geese. Weird.
“A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Lida Xing et. al Current BiologyDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008 © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber

BBC: ‘Beautiful’ dinosaur tail found preserved in amber

Nat Geo: Beach Awash in Amber study guide

(extra credit!) Current Biology: A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber

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