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Jurassic Park-like fossil discovery reveals the details behind dinosaur feathers

A chance discovery unearthed one of the most spectacular dinosaur fossils every found.

A member of the T-rex family, only the size of a sparrow.

Chung-tat Cheung and Yi Liu

A member of the T-rex family, only the size of a sparrow.

A Chinese scientist browsing a market in Myanmar has stumbled onto the find of the century. What first appeared to be a fragment of a bird’s tail suspended in 99-million-year old amber in fact belongs to a coelurosaur — a feathered, sparrow-sized dinosaur. But what is amber and where does it get its enchanting ability to capture an ancient moment and freeze it in time?

Fair feather find
 

Using microscopes and a CT scanner, scientists at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum were the first to ever see dinosaur feathers in glorious 3D. They’re white and brown, and more delicately structured than modern bird feathers, lacking the strong central rod.

As a result, this dino probably couldn’t fly: a clue feathers may have first evolved for a purpose other than flight. Unlike in birds, the tail’s vertebrae were not fused into one bone, but segmented and able to bend in several places at once.

If you picked up, would you guess that it held a dino tail - and a window to a 100-milllion-year-old world?

Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

If you picked up, would you guess that it held a dino tail - and a window to a 100-milllion-year-old world?

Who was this dinosaur?

A pocket-sized member of the T. rex’s family, coelurosauria. It walked upright and feasted on insects.

Sorry, Jurassic Park fans, scientists are pretty sure dino DNA can’t survive in amber. Earlier experiments that suggested this was possible seem to have picked up stray DNA from the lab.   

What is amber?

Amber starts out as sticky tree resin. Over many years, a series of chemical reactions turns hardened resin into glassy amber. Smelly, reactive chemicals, called volatiles, dissipate, and the rings of hydrogen and carbon that remain arrange themselves into long chains of molecules called polymers. Once the volatiles are gone and the polymerization is complete, the resin, sometimes with debris or dead critters trapped inside, is amber.

A close up view of the first three-dimensional dinosaur feathers human eyes ever got to see.

Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

A close up view of the first three-dimensional dinosaur feathers human eyes ever got to see.

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