Preserved for 70 to 85 million years, these feathers are part of a newly revealed trove of likely dinosaur and bird plumage found trapped in amber in Alberta, Canada.
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, a new study says.
But perhaps what's most striking about them, said paleontologist Julia Clarke, is their ability to make the past present. "You feel the expanse of time separating you from these feathers seem to fall away," said Clarke, of the University of Texas, who wasn't involved in the study.
"They look like something you could touch and that might have just fallen off yesterday. They aren't like the stony blocks you think of with most fossils."
"To find everything from the most primitive types of feather fossils in the record ... to highly evolved bird feathers, with the features required to make flight feathers, here in a single deposit that's all roughly the same age—it's really incredible,” said University of Alberta paleoecologist Alexander Wolfe, co-author of the September 16 Science paper describing the research.
Part of what makes it so incredible is pure serendipity: Study co-author Ryan McKellar, a University of Alberta doctoral student, stumbled upon the feathers while studying insects in amber housed at Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum, such as the plant bug visible at left.
(See a picture of the oldest known bee fossil, encased in amber.)
Photography courtesy Science/AAAS
Amber—and an ancient spider web—trap an isolated prehistoric feather barb. Like the rest of the fossil resin featured in the study, the piece hails from a large amber deposit near the Canadian village of Grassy Lake (map).
During the Late Cretaceous the now cool region was subtropical to tropical and situated on the shores of a shallow inland sea. The site may have resembled Florida's Everglades, study co-author Wolfe explained, with cypress-like trees providing plenty of resin that would later harden into amber.
Preserved pigment cells in these six feather barbs lend tantalizing clues to color.
The feathers from more evolutionarily advanced birds may have sported a wider range of hues— including black and white—but hard evidence is currently difficult to come by because the amber thwarts imaging techniques.
"Right now we have these incredibly well-preserved feathers, but no way to get at them," Clarke said, adding that she hopes future imaging techniques will be able to unlock the true palette of melanin-based colors in the feathers.
The more primitive feathers found in the amber cache may have come from dinosaurs such as China's 125-million-year-old Sinosauropteryx prima, reconstructed by an artist above.
The first dinosaur fossil discovered with feathers intact, S. prima "has been found with compression fossils of plumage directly comparable to the protofeathers that we recovered from amber," said study co-author Ryan McKellar.
"These dinosaurs have not been found in North America, but it has been suggested that many theropods"—two-legged carnivores, including T. rex, whose fossils are often found in North America—"may have borne similar plumage."