A scientist snuck into a disputed region of Myanmar to discover the first feather dinosaur tail

Tail breaching surface with ant2 black backgroundRoyal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)You can also see an ancient ant preserved in the same sample.

Scientists recently found a feathered, 99 million-year-old dinosaur tail preserved in a chunk of amber from a mine in Myanmar.

Researchers have known for about two decades that many dinosaurs (not just birds) were covered in feathers. And individual dinosaur feathers have been found before. But this appendage, just under one and a half inches long, is the first example of non-bird dinosaur bone, muscle, and feathers all found in one place.

The team behind the discovery published their findings in the journal Current Biology. They were led by Lida Xing and Ryan McKellar, who also published a paper in June on the discovery of two baby bird dinosaur wings preserved in amber in the same region of Myanmar.

Tail micro CT scan with feather bases dorsal view detail with scaleLida XingA micro-CT scan of the tail

The feathers on the tail are structured more like ornamental feathers on modern birds than flight feathers, and this small creature would probably have been incapable of flight. There was also a significant amount of iron found in the amber, suggesting the remains of the dinosaur’s blood.

According to Motherboard, Xing found the small chunk of amber in an amber market in a part of the Kachin State in northern Myanmar controlled by the Kachin Independence Army — not an easy area for a foreign researcher to work.

He disguised himself as a local Burmese man, and was able to sneak into the area, meet with a prospector, and eventually locate and purchase the sample.

Microscopic barbules on tail feathers4Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)Microscopic barbules on tail feathers

The result: a first look for science at the actual structure of feathers on non-bird dinosaur tissue.

It’s not yet clear exactly what species of dinosaur left this tail behind. But it appears to have been a young coelurosaur. That is, from the group of dinosaurs that includes t-rex, raptors, and modern birds.

Maniraptora amber by CHEUNG Chung tat and LIU Yiby CHEUNG Chung-tat and LIU YiA rendering of a small coelurosaur

The tail was flexible, and different from the fused tails modern birds use for flight. It was chesnut-brown on top and pale on the bottom, which Motherboard reports Xing said may have helped it blend into the terrain.

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