Dinosaur Feathers Found in Ancient Amber

By Breanna Draxler | September 20, 2013 11:35 am
dinosaur feathers in amber

These feathers got stuck in a glob of amber millions of years ago. Image credit: Science/AAAS

Instead of digging through rocks and rubble to find fossils, a group of Canadian paleontologists decided to dig through museums’ amber collections instead. Their unique approach paid off when they discovered feathers and never-before-seen structures, which they think are something called dinofuzz. As described in Science Now,

Some of the structures embedded in the amber don’t resemble anything seen on any creature living today.

Finding Feathers

The researchers combed through thousands of minuscule amber nuggets from nearly 80 million years ago. Among them they found 11 M&M-sized globules with traces of ancient feathers and fuzz. A number resembled modern feathers—some fit for flying and others designed to dive. And unlike fossils, the amber preserved colors too: white, gray, red and brown.

dinosaur feather in amber with spider web

Tangled in a spider web, this feather suggests that wind could have blown feathers into the still-sticky amber, or they could have gotten stuck when an animal brushed against a tree. Image credit: Science/AAAS

But a few hollow hair-like structures stumped researchers. The unidentifiable filaments weren’t plant fibers, fungus or fur, so the researchers surmise that they are protofeathers (thought to be the evolutionary precursors to feathers). Discovery News explains:

The collection is among the first to reveal all major evolutionary stages of feather development in non-avian dinosaurs and birds.

A Clearer History

The results, published in Science this week, [UPDATE 9/23/13: Not this week! Sorry. This is one from the archives] give researchers a clearer picture of which ancient animals were feathered and the various purposes those structures served. As described in National Geographic:

The unusual find suggests a wide array of plumed creatures populated the time period—sporting everything from seemingly modern feathers to their filament-like forebears—and that even by this early date, feathers had become specialized, for example, for diving underwater.

dinofuzz in amber

The amber preserves the feathers’ colors like fossils never can. Image credit: Science/AAAS

It’s unlikely that the amber will have preserved enough DNA to sequence entire genomes, but who knows. Maybe geneticists will again strike scientific gold—er, amber.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: amber, birds, dinosaurs, feathers
  • Lisa Dawn

    It was announced by the scientific community last week that it’s final and that DNA cannot be extracted from amber. Is something different that I don’t know about? That you don’t? I’d love to know if there is.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      I don’t think it was supposed to be a speculative statement in a scientific sense.

      I think it was just a semi-humorous expression of enthusiasm.

      • Lisa Dawn

        Yes, sadly that’s what I suspected. I was so hoping that they knew something I hadn’t heard yet.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Not me! I saw what happened in Jurassic Park! Jeff Goldblum knows!

          • Lisa Dawn

            But, now we know what mistakes to avoid!

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            You can’t possibly know all paths of the drop of water.

    • Dale Anson

      There is no final in science, you should know that by now. Perhaps the publication should have said that with current technology and DNA extraction methods it is almost certainly impossible.

      • achimus

        there is no final in science, but if there’s nothing left to work with, it maybe is final.

        • Dale Anson

          that’s almost true, but how do you know there’s nothing left to work with? It depends on what levels you can see things at. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds highly unlikely, but things do love to change.

          • mvpetri

            Theories and technology love to change, not things. Our interpretation aren’t consistent, but Nature is. We do know how DNA decay (by observing it not by modeling it with a theory) in such systems and there’s no new technique that will make it un-decay. DNA is not a stable chemical (compared with mineral rocks) and that’s why every living system has a proof system to repair natural damage. After the organism dies you can only preserve the integrity of the molecule if you keep in a very cold or very dry site. But even in these cases if you let long enough it’ll decay so much that one could not be able to extract it.

          • peemo

            That’s assuming the only way to find missing information about the DNA is to “undecay” it. It might be unlikely but certainly not unforeseeable that new discoveries, techniques, and theories will allow us to learn more about this stuff.

          • Jack Pollock

            I think it is realistic to imagine that “undecaying” will be quite feasible in the not-so-distant future.

            If we know the reactive products of adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine under various influences, we could assess the likely previous configuration once enough variables are known. If there is still a wide degree of chaos, we could use statistical models and samples from various sources to filter out the noise and reveal a generic genotype of whatever species we are investigating.

            Even if all of this still proves to be not enough, determinism is a strong enough force within our reality to demand there to be some other method of reversing, at least on a generic level, the damage done.

        • Richrd Neal

          What!?…”There is no final in science” but “it might be final?”….Which is it?…

    • TheRealWalrus

      DNA base pairs have a known half-life. As I recall, it would take only about 5 million years for an entire strand of DNA to decay, and thus be unrecoverable.

    • YuriGotBack

      but, Jurassic Park…

  • Buddy199

    It’s unlikely that the amber will have preserved enough DNA to sequence entire genomes
    ——————-
    I’d like to see what they’ll be able to do with the samples in another 20 or 30 years.

    • Lisa Dawn

      Supposedly, a mammoth is possible soon. This excites me beyond belief.

    • RadoYeti

      DNA has a relatively short life compared to the fossils or amber that is found. If we wait that long, it may be too late.

      • http://secondhand.buddah.co.za/ Robin Grant

        I think its only about 500 years

        • NeoNazi Will Farrell

          well that’s when satan planted these dinosaurs to fool humans so they’ll doubt jesus and burn in hell forever.

          • http://secondhand.buddah.co.za/ Robin Grant

            Yes, my bad. The half-life of DNA is 521 years. A study was published in Nature on 10 October 2012. The bonds between the nucleotides break down rapidly after that rendering the DNA useless. So we my still be able to clone a Mammoth because they went extinct quite recently, but there no chance to resurrect any dinos.

          • Bob Ofenhagen

            I suppose we get a free pass because we didn’t hunt down Christians for three thousand years and kill them off. The opposite statement cannot be made.

          • Buddy199

            why do athiests get a free pass on being bigots?

          • Bob Ofenhagen

            I suppose we get a free pass because we didn’t hunt down Christians for three thousand years and kill them off. The opposite statement cannot be made.

          • Hatetotellya

            No atheists ever hunted and killed people? I find that hard to believe. Vikings? Mongols? Visigoths? Huns? I mean, I don’t know… just asking… I think Vikings had gods… not sure about the rest. But aren’t the ancient barbarians suppose to have been godless people? The equivalent of modern atheists? Just indiscriminate bigots right? Wait, is that an oxymoron?

      • Edmund Schluessel

        It’s already 80 million years old. 80 million + 30 years won’t make a significant difference.

      • NeoNazi Will Farrell

        not true, the dna won’t go bad within 30 years. Oxford Geneticist Bryan Sykes developed a method of dna extraction where he was able to get dna from a 10,000 year old tooth. The outside was fossilized but the center of the tooth was still good. The outer shell of fossilized tooth enamel acted to keep the inside fresh and preserved for millennia. Considering this is amber which would’ve hardened shortly after contact, there is a very good chance that there is a significant amount of dna that can still be recovered if you carefully remove the amber in the right conditions. Jurassic park anyone?

        • NeoNazi Will Farrell

          furthermore, if they find a fully preserved cell with an intact nucleus, we could transplant that nucleus into the stem cell of an Ostridge, Presto! Dinosaurs resurrected.

          • .::Psyched Blog::.

            Close but… no cigar, lol

        • Brian Aufderheide

          I think too people need to realize that dna sequencers do not use whole dna but fragments which are reconstructed using statistical methods. Now if you know how the DNA breaks down you could still try a reconstruction based off that knowledge. Would it be perfect? No. But that with growing proteomes from birds both from genomes and from pseudo genes, well you might get a hell of a lot closer than you think.

  • Jugurtha Hadjar

    You’re telling me I can’t have my own dinosaur ?

    • RWFG

      I want a mini-trex. Oh the look on my neighbor’s face will be priceless as it eats her little yappy dog.

      • Jugurtha Hadjar

        Targaryen, is this you ?

    • http://justinkent.me/ Justin Kent

      If you get a Cassowary you’d get pretty close, probably the closest thing to a living dinosaur.

      • Jugurtha Hadjar

        I hunted the crap out of these in Far Cry 3 :D

      • Stewart

        ill take it

        • joshua kit

          There’s also the Tuatara.

          • Marko Bosscher

            The Tuatara is of course famous for being a “living fossil”, last of it’s lineage and all that. Although genetic analysis has shown that it is not as unchanging as once thought based on fossils alone.
            It’s not very closely related to actual Dinosaurs though.

      • Louis Carlos Maldonado

        I was six feet away of that in a private zoo colection in Mexico….and is the most scary thing i’ve ever see. I just can descibe it as a nightmare giant dino-turkey.

      • Marko Bosscher

        Like all birds it is literally a living Dinosaur, it belongs to the Theropoda. Just like the T. rex :-)

      • ScienceGeek

        Nice! Thanks for this one!!

  • Thomas Albert

    Feathered dinosaurs……so they didn’t all go extinct.

    • Kenny

      Of course, all birds are dinosaurs.

      • Thomas Albert

        Poorly worded, but yes I have figured them so since I was a kid and that goes back a bit. However, the past 20-25 years have shown so much evidence to argue otherwise would equate to spitting into hurricane winds. Of course some small dinosaurs made it through, and perhaps a few larger one, which may have hung on for a generation or two at most. The smaller ones didn’t need as much of everything as their larger cousins would. Same with the mammals and other genera that pulled through, as a rule poodle size or smaller made it.

  • apfwebs

    That is cool as all get-out!

  • Broge Kilrain

    This would allow these prehistoric being to insulate in cold, pump blood to more surface area at fathers to warm blood in morning much the same as you see large birds do today. Feathers are just enlarged elongated reptile scales with more surface area to control body temperature of cold blooded animal.Flight came later with smaller lighter reptiles.

  • Marko Bosscher

    I think Discover Magazine needs to update it’s calender:
    “The results, published in Science this week,”
    Actually the date on that paper is 16 September 2011!

    Still a cool discovery, and well worth bringing to people’s attention, even if it was published two years ago ;-)

    • Robert H. Woodman

      Hey, they’re feathers from dinosaurs dead for millions of years. Discovery Magazine doesn’t need to get in a rush about these things, you know. :-)

      And, yes, it’s a cool discovery.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

      Thanks for pointing that out, Marko! My bad. The date has been changed.

  • Teto85

    Cool.

  • richardkmichael

    The linked Science Magazine article was published on September 16, 2011; not “this week”.

    Is there a mistake somewhere, or have I misunderstood?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

      Good eye! We’ve made the change in the post.

  • John Smith

    I’m waiting for the creationists to claim to have found human hair mixed in with the dino feathers.

  • Bosda

    Ahh…somebody got smart!

  • Addison

    For Christ’s sake, let it go. The idea of “DNA preserved in amber” is/was the brainchild of Michael Crichton, a former medical student turned sci-fi writer with no interest/background in paleontology. The movie came out – and all of sudden the “real” scientific world – egged on by the movie-groggy media along with its science-ignorant audience – started looking for dino DNA. It was NEVER a concept that was EVER based in real science or research. Stop letting movies dictate how science should work.

  • Karina Perez

    So cool :) (#MadCat302)

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