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Dinosaur feathers frozen in time

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Since it’s getting so ugly over at TechCrunch, I thought I should provide an antidote of real beauty. Every now and then a scientific paper is published that hits it out of the park with imagery. Yesterday, McKellar el. al did just that in Science, publishing a smorgasbord of photographs of dinosaur and early bird feathers trapped in amber in addition to a truly stellar reconstruction of Sinosauropteryx by Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing. Without further ado:

An isolated barb that is structurally similar to those figured in 8HR, but lacks pigmentation. This specimen is largely visible as a result of being stuck within a drying line in the amber. The drying line is the darkened region within the amber, representing a surface where the resin was once exposed and partially dried. Found within the same piece of amber is a juvenile mite. Photo: Ryan McKellar

Within this amber piece, six feather fragments partially overlap each other. The beaded appearance of the barbules (finest structures) in this image is a result of pigments concentrated within just a portion of each of the segments that make up the barbules. These barbule segments or “internodes” are connected in a fashion similar to the segments in a bamboo shoot. Photo: Ryan McKellar

A dark-field microphotograph that illustrates the apparent brown colour produced by pigments within the feather in amber. Much of the work on Canadian amber specimens has been limited by the technology available to observe the specimens. We have good indications of pigment intensity and distribution at a very fine scale, but large-scale colour patterns are elusive. Photo: Ryan McKellar

specialized feather

A very specialized feather found alongside a plant bug within Canadian amber. This feather displays specialized structures (coiled barbule bases) that are only known in modern birds adapted to gather water with their feathers. In some cases, this helps the bird dive, by reducing its buoyancy, in other cases, belly feathers with this type of coiling are used to collect water and transport it to the nest. Photo: Ryan McKellar

dino fuzz

A large number of isolated, hair-like filaments run diagonally through this amber piece. The best match for this very simple type of plumage is commonly referred to as “protofeathers” or “dino-fuzz”, and has been reported in association with a large number of Chinese dinosaur skeletons. Here, we cannot be certain which animal once bore the plumage, but its simple structure suggests a dinosaur source. Photo: Ryan McKellar

16 feather barbs

): A partial view of 16 feather barbs trapped within a single piece of Canadian amber. These specimens provide few clues about their potential bearer, but provide another tantalizing view of well-preserved pigments within the deposit. The overall colour of these specimens would likely have been medium or dark-brown. Photo: Ryan McKellar

Sinosauropteryx, a dinosaur with plumage similar to that found in Canadian amber. Specimens with hair-like protofeathers have been studied extensively from the Early Cretaceous of China, but this is the first time that plumage directly comparable to these specimens has been recovered from amber. Illustration by Chuang Zhao and Lida Xing.

McKellar, R., Chatterton, B., Wolfe, A., & Currie, P. (2011). A Diverse Assemblage of Late Cretaceous Dinosaur and Bird Feathers from Canadian Amber Science, 333 (6049), 1619-1622 DOI: 10.1126/science.1203344

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 7:43 am 09/17/2011

    I gather from other posts that “diverse” is because these random (surprising, exciting) finds shows evolutionary stages from so simple it is unclear if it is feathers, hairs or maybe insect bristles to modern feathers.

    To me though, it looks like birds of a feather. =D

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 2:26 pm 09/17/2011

    Holy snap.

    Gorgeous images. I wonder how many other dinosaur feathers are lurking in amber collections?

    Link to this
  3. 3. gbcjjj 6:08 pm 09/17/2011

    No DNA?

    Link to this
  4. 4. 11:19 pm 09/17/2011

    Torbjörn – you’re right. SciAm has a neat article that explains the significance of these finds in much more depth than I have gone into:

    gbcjjj – no DNA :( But interesting info on pigmentation in some of the specimens.

    Glendon – Evidently they looked at 4000 specimens to find these 11. Rare indeed.

    Link to this
  5. 5. CS Shelton 4:41 pm 09/18/2011

    gbcjjj- You are right that, assuming Crichton’s hot idea was valid, these would be a potential source of DNA. The discovery on non-fossilized tissue in thick dinosaur bones has shown that DNA just won’t keep structure for that long, no matter how well-sealed. At least, that’s my non-expert understanding.

    When tiny epidexipteryx was discovered, it occurred to me that it’s possible we will someday find an entire or partial dinosaur in amber. That is the stuff of dreams.

    As for sinosauropteryx there, my feeling based on what I saw in the fossil images is that they were furry throughout, and the white feathers didn’t preserve as well. I’d have drawn it with white fuzz on the bottom of the body. That would have made it look more like modern dinosaurs and mammals in the equivalent size and apparent niche.

    Link to this

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