Scientists are 'blown away' to find a feathered dinosaur tail preserved in amber

A 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail with feathers was examined in a new study by an international team of researchers.


Researchers found a 99-million-year-old chunk of amber containing the feathered tail of a dinosaur.

The remarkable discovery of the sample, which includes preserved bones, soft tissues and feathers, was made in 2015 at an amber market in Myanmar by the paleontologist Dr. Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences at Beijing. After careful study of the sample by CT scanning and microscopic observation, an international scientific team now published their findings in Current Biology.

What's remarkable about this? What isn't?

It's the first time skeletal material from a dinosaur was spotted in amber. The scientists can tell the flexible tail is from a dinosaur and not from a more contemporary bird-like creature due to the way the vertebrae in the sample are not fused together into a stiff rod.

The discovery sheds light on the evolution of feathers from dinosaurs to modern birds. The tail in the find likely belonged to a small “juvenile" dinosaur, probably no larger than a sparrow. It would be classified under the group of dinosaurs called Coelurosauria, a rather large group that fits animals from Tyrannosauruses to modern birds.

This artist reconstruction depicts a small coelurosaur approaching a resin-coated branch on the forest floor. Credit - Chung-tat Cheung.

Here's how Dr. Ryan McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada and an author of the study, described the animal whose tail was found in an interview with ResearchGate:

“The individual that the tail came from would have had rows of feathers coming off the sides of its tail, and this part body would have been fuzzy looking, with pale or white feathers on the underside of the tail, and brown feathers on the upper surface. If this sort of plumage ran the entire length of the tail, it seems unlikely that the animal would have been an active flyer."

The specimen in amber is so well-preserved that first looking at it really excited Dr. McKellar, an amber expert, who examined it after it was found by Dr. Xing.

“When it hit my desk, I was blown away," said Dr. McKellar to the New York Times. “It's one of those things where you're like 'Wow, it's the closest you'll ever get to holding a fleshed-out dinosaur in your hands."

A micro-CT scan shows the feathers in the dinosaur tail. Credit: Lida Xing.

He was particularly fascinated by the feature structure, which did not have a central shaft called a “rachis," something most birds of today have as they need it for flight. Its absence in the sample can be explained if other shafts and filaments in feathers called “barbs" and “barbules" developed before the rachis, with dinosaurs possibly using them for camouflage, visual signaling and to regulate temperature rather than to fly.

“It shapes our view of how feathers came to develop in modern birds, and it gives us a rare glimpse of what dinosaurs looked like and potentially what feathers were being used for in the mid-Cretaceous," explained Dr. McKellar.

You can read the study here.

Cover photo credit: R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we’re mining on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly
Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.


Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

For thousands of years, humans slept in two shifts. Should we do it again?

Researchers believe that the practice of sleeping through the whole night didn’t really take hold until just a few hundred years ago.

The Bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Surprising Science

She was wide awake and it was nearly two in the morning. When asked if everything was alright, she said, “Yes.” Asked why she couldn’t get to sleep she said, “I don’t know.” Neuroscientist Russell Foster of Oxford might suggest she was exhibiting “a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern." Research suggests we used to sleep in two segments with a period of wakefulness in-between.

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Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat to good health and well-being

Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.

Image courtesy of Pfizer.
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  • Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
  • As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
  • If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
  • Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
  • By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
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