Dinosaur Feathers Trapped in Amber

A large treasure trove of ancient amber deposits in Canada has given insight into the evolution of feathers from dinosaurs to modern birds. Amber is essentially fossilised resin that preserves anything unlucky enough to become trapped in it, and researchers have found feathers preserved from the Late Cretaceous Period—70 to 85 million years ago. 11 distinct sets of feathers from 4,000 amber deposits filled in gaps in the fossil record, showing the progression of feathers from hair-like filaments to the branched, structured, flight-capable plumes of modern birds. “We’re finding two ends of the evolutionary development [of] feathers trapped in the same amber deposit,” says Ryan McKellar, the study’s co-author. The specimens were so well-preserved that researchers could even see the pigments that once coloured them—the feathers ranged from transparent to mottled to bright. Some had even become specialised, not for flight but for diving underwater, and some may have come from China’s 125-million-year-old Sinosauropteryx prima, the first dinosaur fossil discovered with feathers intact. The find suggests that dinosaurs were not all the scaly, drab creatures that we often imagine—a wide array of brightly-coloured creatures roamed the earth too, perhaps right up to the dinosaurs’ extinction.

(Image Credit: National Geographic)

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