Researchers have discovered a feather-covered dinosaur tail encased in amber in Myanmar. The new specimen offers strong evidence that would prove the ancient beasts may not all have been the scaly reptilian creatures they've been presented in popular media.
In a study featured in the Current Biology, scientists from the China University of Geosciences and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum examined a 99-million-year-old dinosaur fossil found at a local amber market in Myitkyina in 2015.
The tail measured at about 36 millimeters (1.4 inches) long and was covered in a layer of fossilized resin, which helped preserved the pieces of skin, flesh, bones, and feathers that the specimen contained.
The research team said the dinosaur tail may have belonged to a two-legged bird-like creature known as the maniraptoran. The maniraptoran is considered to be one of several dinosaur groups that had feathers on their bodies.
The owner of the fossilized tail may have been a maniraptoran that measured about 6 inches long, which is similar to the size of sparrows.
Scientists have long believed that modern-day birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs that lived during the Jurassic Period some 150 million years ago.
Most of what is known about these feathered dinosaurs came from data examined in two-dimensional form. Prehistoric feather can often be found in compression rocks, where samples are preserved through squishing and flattening them in sediment.
However, this limits the ability of scientists to properly study specimens since feathers are not naturally flat. The discovery of the amber-encased dinosaur tail provides researchers with the chance to observe a feathered sample in three-dimensional form.
The research team examined the dinosaur tail using microscopic observations and advanced scanning. This allowed members to identify a chestnut-brown upper surface on the specimen with a pale underside, which corresponds to a countershading pattern.
Ryan McKellar, a paleontologist from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, pointed out that the fossilized tail still has some feathers attached to it. They can see how the feathers are attached to the dinosaur flesh and even identified their shapes down to a micrometer scale.
The dinosaur specimen is made up of eight vertebrae, with well-preserved feathers and soft tissue that can be observed in three dimensions.
McKellar said that the owner of the feathered tail could have died after getting it stuck in resin since such creatures don't typically drop their tails like how lizards do.
The research team was able to rule out the possibility that the tail belonged to a bird through its anatomy. It was long and flexible and didn't have the fused vertebrae known as pygostyle often seen in bird's tails.