Dinosaurs with feathers? Weird! Yet feathers preserved in amber is providing a new look at creatures we originally thought were reptilian scaly. The West Virginia Gazette reports:
“Now, instead of scaly animals portrayed as usually drab creatures, we have solid evidence for a fluffy colored past,” reports Mark A. Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Examples of ancient feathers ranging from the simple to the complex are now being studied. They were preserved in amber found in western Canada, researchers led by Ryan C. McKellar of the University of Alberta report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.
Amber, hardened tree resin, preserved a mixture of feathers from 70 million years ago. Other feathers contained in amber dating to 90 million years ago are less diverse.
Specimens include simple filament structures similar to the earliest feathers of non-flying dinosaurs — a form unknown in modern birds — and more complicated bird feathers “displaying pigmentation and adaptations for flight and diving,” the researchers reported.
Indications of feathers have been found on much older fossils, and the new discoveries indicate feathers continued to develop into modern form before the extinction of dinosaurs, explained Norell, who was not part of the research team.
A separate report by Roy A. Wogelius of the University of Manchester, England, published online June 30 by Science, reports the finding of trace metals in feather fossils, suggesting their colors included black, brown and a reddish-brown.
The amber preserved feathers was turned up by a University of Alberta research team and is from the Cretaceous period, making them over 80 million years old. Science Daily adds:
U of A paleontology graduate student Ryan McKellar discovered a wide range of feathers 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 theropods 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.
Does that mean they could fly? Only time and further discoveries will tell.