The mines of northern Myanmar – also known as Burma – have been producing amber for thousands of years. What one miner found encased in a piece of rock in 2015, however, was truly unique. In fact, to the surprise of international scientists, he had unearthed the remains of a never-before-documented prehistoric creature…
Made of tree resin which has hardened over time, amber is a semi-precious gemstone that has long been used in jewelry. And, as anyone who has seen Jurassic Park knows, it can sometimes contain fossilized prehistoric insects such as mosquitos. What this piece of Burmese amber contained, however, was even more amazing than that.
Also known as “burmite,” Burmese amber was formed in the Cretaceous era. Starting 145 million years ago, the epoch lasted some 79 million years and saw the evolution of a wide variety of species. However, it ended with a violent extinction event that wiped out three-quarters of the Earth’s species.
And so this particular piece of Burmese amber offers a rare glimpse of a long-lost world teeming with life forms. It was, in fact, mined in Hukawng Valley in Kachin State. To complicate matters, the region has long been hard to reach for foreigners due to a conflict between local separatists and the Burmese government.
Fortunately, however, Lida Xing, a paleontologist at the China University of Geosciences, was able to get into the area using a fake ID and some camouflage. “I disguised myself as a Burmese man with a face painted with Thanaka,” he told the online magazine Motherboard. Thanaka is a cosmetic mixture widely worn in Myanmar.
Once inside Kachin, Xing found a piece of amber at a market in the city of Myitkyina. Apparently intended for a jeweler’s workshop, it had been cut and polished. This suggested that the miner had missed its true value. And on top of that, the market vendor had wrongly identified the fossil inside it as plant remains.
After the amber had been scanned, a complete description of the fossil was published in the journal Current Biology in December 2016. The lump of Cretaceous-era plant resin was found to be 99 million years old. And in honor of co-author Dr Philip Currie’s wife, it was nicknamed “Eva”.
“A beautiful fossil” was how Dr Paul Barnett from London’s Natural History Museum described it to the BBC. Indeed, what “Eva” actually contained was the remains of a well preserved 1.4-inch-long dinosaur tail. Moreover, the tail included not only bones, skin and tissue, but a covering of minute feathers.
“What this new specimen shows is the 3D arrangement of feathers in a Mesozoic dinosaur/bird for the first time,” Dr Barnett told the BBC in December 2016. “Almost all of the other feathered dinosaur fossils… that we have are flattened and 2D only, which has obscured some important features of their anatomy.”
While the presence of feathers might suggest that these are the remains of a bird, the authors of the study have been able to rule that out. “The vertebrae are not fused… as in modern birds and their closest relatives,” Dr Ryan McKellar told the BBC. “Instead, the tail is long and flexible.”
The authors have therefore come to the conclusion that the tail belongs to a young coelurosaur. Coelurosauria were theropod dinosaurs – that is, carnivorous beasts that walked or ran on their hind legs. In fact, Dr Currie believes that all coelurosaurs, including tyrannosaurs, may have been feathered.
Thus, the popular image of dinosaurs as scaly-skinned monsters might be a little off. Instead, they may have been covered with a soft, downy covering not unlike a baby bird. But rather than being used for flight, such feathers would have kept their wearers warm. And in the case of bright plumage, they may also have been used for signaling.
Xing thinks the tail may have come from a maniraptoran. This would make it a relative of the so-called “chicken from hell.” Discovered in 2014, the monstrous creature, properly known as Anzu wyliei, stood 11 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds. National Geographic described it as “a devilish version of the modern cassowary.”
However, the tail found in Burmese amber more likely belonged to a dinosaur the size of a mere sparrow. Like many modern-day small lizards, such coeurolsaurs would have scampered around the forest floor and hunted insects. Indeed, its chestnut-brown feathers may have helped it to blend in with its woodland habitat.
Meanwhile, there are signs that this specimen was alive when it became trapped in tree resin. “It’s amazing to see all the details of a dinosaur tail,” Professor Mike Benton told the BBC. “And to imagine how this little fellow got his tail caught in the resin, and then died because he could not wrestle free.”
Analysis of the sample has revealed the presence ferrous iron, which once formed part of the hemoglobin in the dinosaur’s blood. Sadly, however, DNA cannot survive millions of years. This means that a Jurassic Park-style resurrection is not possible. Ferrous iron is still a positive sign though. It means future samples might be able to reveal characteristics such as skin patterns.
More generally, the tail is revealing new information about the evolutionary development of flight feathers. It also adds to the body of evidence that small, predatory dinosaurs such as this one were the ancestors of modern bird species. Of course, birds did already exist at the time this amber was formed.
In fact, in June 2016, the same researchers published a report about fossils of Cretaceous-era bird wings found in the same region of Myanmar. Roughly an inch in size, the minute remains are believed to be from baby birds that got caught in tree sap. Intriguingly, the wings had claws for climbing.
In the grand scheme of things, though, little is known about the fossils of northern Myanmar. “The mines are extremely dangerous, so foreigners can hardly get there,” Xing told Motherboard. However, with an end to the regional conflict in sight, that might be about to change.
With closer scientific scrutiny, it is possible that more exciting discoveries will be made in Myanmar in the not-too-distant future. “Maybe we can find a complete dinosaur,” Xing told National Geographic magazine in December 2016. Indeed, whatever its size, with or without feathers, that really would be a mega find.