Tree resin captures evolution of feathers on dinosaurs and birds

September 15, 2011
This undated handout photo provided by the journal Science shows an overview of 16 clumped feather barbs in Canadian Late Cretaceous amber specimen TMP. In science fiction, amber preserved DNA that allowed rebirth of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. In real life, amber preserved feathers that provide a new image of what dinosaurs looked like.

Secrets from the age of the dinosaurs are usually revealed by fossilized bones, but a University of Alberta research team has turned up a treasure trove of Cretaceous feathers trapped in tree resin. The resin turned to resilient amber, preserving some 80 million-year-old protofeathers, possibly from non-avian dinosaurs, as well as plumage that is very similar to modern birds, including those that can swim under water.

U of A paleontology graduate student Ryan McKellar discovered a wide range of among the vast amber collections at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in southern Alberta. This material stems from Canada's most famous amber deposit, near Grassy Lake in southwestern Alberta.

The discovery of the 11 feather specimens is described as the richest amber feather find from the late Cretaceous period. The amber preserves microscopic detail of the feathers and even their pigment or colour. McKellar describes the colours as typically ranging from brown to black.

No dinosaur or avian fossils were found in direct association with the amber feather specimens, but McKellar says comparison between the amber and fossilized feathers found in rock strongly suggest that some of the Grassy Lake specimens are from dinosaurs. The non-avian dinosaur evidence points to small as the source of the feathers.

Some of the feather specimens with modern features are very similar to those of modern birds like the Grebe, which are able to swim underwater. The feathers can take on water giving the bird the ballast required to dive more effectively.

McKellar says the Grassy Lake find demonstrates that numerous evolutionary stages of feathers were present in the late Cretaceous period and that plumage served a range of functions in both dinosaurs and birds.

The U of A team's research was published September 15, in the journal Science.

Explore further: Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

Related Stories

Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

September 26, 2006

The earliest known ancestor of modern-day birds took to the skies by gliding from trees using primitive feathered wings on their arms and legs, according to new research by a University of Calgary paleontologist. In a paper ...

Feathers fly over new dinosaur find

March 18, 2009

The discovery of a petite, plant-eating dinosaur with primitive plumage could mean that the dinosaur from which all others evolved had feather-like protrusions, said a study released Wednesday.

The color of dinosaur feathers identified

January 27, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The colour of some feathers on dinosaurs and early birds has been identified for the first time, reports a paper published in Nature this week.

Feathers too weak for early bird flight

May 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The evolution of flight took longer than previously thought with the ancestors of modern birds “rubbish” at flying, if they flew at all, according to a Manchester scientist.

Recommended for you

Earliest evidence of reproduction in a complex organism

August 3, 2015

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have found the earliest example of reproduction in a complex organism. Their new study has found that some organisms known as rangeomorphs, which lived 565 million years ago, ...

Model shows how surge in wealth inequality may be reversed

July 30, 2015

(Phys.org)—For many Americans, the single biggest problem facing the country is the growing wealth inequality. Based on income tax data, wealth inequality in the US has steadily increased since the mid-1980s, with the top ...

French teen finds 560,000 year-old tooth (Update)

July 28, 2015

A 16-year-old French volunteer archaeologist has found an adult tooth dating back around 560,000 years in southwestern France, in what researchers hailed as a "major discovery" Tuesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.