Amber is often prized not just for its golden beauty, but also for the tiny creatures it contains, many of them millions of years old. Now, a chunk of this fossilized tree sap found at a market in Myanmar has turned out to contain a very rare treasure indeed: a slender piece of feathered tail that belonged to a small bipedal dinosaur that lived about 99 million years ago.
“Since Jurassic Park came out, paleontologists have joked about finding dinosaurs in amber, since it would contain so much extra information. And now we have a piece of one,” says Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved in the study.
Researchers aren’t using ancient blood from the belly of preserved mosquitos to recreate dinosaurs, as in the movies. But the finding does reveal a feathered dinosaur tail in 3D for the first time, and offers a unique glimpse into the early evolution of feathers. Amber is a uniquely useful fossilizer, notes Michael Engel, a paleontologist and entomologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was also not involved in the study. “It preserves things in lifelike fidelity.” Although it’s rare to find larger animals preserved in the sticky flow, researchers have found everything from frogs to lizards to ancient bird wings, likely entombed after death.