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Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)
Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

Scientists Find Feathered Dinosaur Tail Preserved in Amber

Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)
Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

Paleontologists have discovered a tiny dinosaur’s fluffy tail preserved inside a drop of amber. They described their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The amber market in northern Myanmar where the specimen was found has already proven itself a rich scientific resource. Earlier this year, a team of researchers reported finding a pair of well-preserved bird wings dating back at least 100 million years. The team had bought more than a dozen pieces of amber, including those two. As they turned their attention to the rest of their purchase, one silver dollar–sized chunk stood out.

Lida Xing

Within this drop lay what looked like a tiny, feathery switch not even an inch and a half long. Computed tomography (CT) scans, high-powered microscopy, and chemical analysis confirmed the team’s suspicions: They’d found a dinosaur tail.

More specifically, they’d found part of the tail of a fluffy young theropod, most likely a coelurosaur.

Look at that cutie. Image Credit: Chung-tat Cheung

The articulated tail contained eight vertebrae and delicate, barbed feathers that would have been white or chestnut brown while the little dinosaur was still alive. Unlike the bird wing feathers, these appear to be more ornamental than anything else. The researchers say that if the rest of the coelurosaur’s tail looked like this segment, it was unlikely it would have been flight-worthy at all. Its handsome fluffy feathers would have kept it on the ground.

Co-author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan museum says these findings reaffirm the importance of amber to the scientific record. “Amber pieces preserve tiny snapshots of ancient ecosystems,” he said in a statement, “but they record microscopic details, three-dimensional arrangements, and labile tissues that are difficult to study in other settings. This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity and protecting as a fossil resource."

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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