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This Is What A Dinosaur's Tail Feathers Look Like

Dinosaurs have feathers now. It's just how it is, there's no point complaining.

This picture shows the feathers on a 99-million-year-old dinosaur's tail, preserved in amber.

Royal Saskatchewan Museum / RC McKellar

It's a fossil coelurosaur, a kind of theropod, which lived in the Cretaceous period. Lots of species of theropod are known to science, most famously the velociraptors – but there were many others, and modern birds are descended from them. They were usually hunters.

It's not clear exactly what species this fossil was, though. Mike Benton, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the study, tells BuzzFeed News it's hard to tell. There are no regular fossils near where it was found to compare it to, he says, and "there's nothing diagnostic in the tail that can tell you for sure" what the species is.

It's not the first time that dinosaur feathers have been found, but it's unusual because they've been found still attached to (a part of) the dinosaur.

Eight tail vertebrae were found trapped in the amber – suggesting that the dinosaur, probably a juvenile, got caught by the tail in a tree's sticky resin.

Amber is a semi-precious gemstone formed from hardened tree resin. This bit was found in an amber market in Myanmar, after being found in a dig in the same country. "The Burmese amber was in some sort of tropical forest," says Benton. "It was rich in life, and it's already produced an enormous array of insects and plant remains.

"Recently our colleague Lida Xing [of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing] has been collecting the remains of vertebrates – lizards, lots of things."

Some dinosaurs were massive. This one wasn't. It was tiny.

Lida Xing

That's the tail section, with a 2mm mark for scale. "The whole piece of amber is only about the size of a thumbnail," Benton said. "The dinosaur itself would only have been a few centimetres long."

The discovery sheds some new light on how feathers evolved.

The feathers have fine branches, known as barbs and barbules, but no tough central shaft, or rachis, like that of modern birds' feathers. The authors say that this implies that the barbs and barbules evolved before the rachis did.

The feathers give an idea of what the dinosaur's colours probably were – chestnut brown on the top, paler underneath.

Royal Saskatchewan Museum / RC McKellar

So, they think, it might have looked something a bit like this.

Hello little guy!

It's been there, trapped in the Myanmar amber, for almost 100 million years.

Benton said in a press release: "It’s amazing to imagine how this little fellow got his tail caught in the resin, and then presumably died because he could not wrestle free."

The pictures are taken from a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

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