A baby dinosaur the size of a sparrow brushed up against a tree that was sticky with resin and left part
of itself behind. Today, ninety-nine million years later, that resin is a ball of amber preserving insects, bits of plants, and tail bones and feathers from that poor babe.
It sounds like science fiction: a 99-million-year-old, feathery dinosaur tail encased in amber. But the specimen is real, and it is helping scientists envision how feathers evolved… ‘It’s so unsurprising to find a dinosaur with feathers now,[see Wikipedia for more on that] it’s like predicting that a fossil mammal would have hair.’ csmonitor.com
While most fossils are distorted and flattened in sedimentary rock, amber preserves a three dimensional form, allowing scientists to see just how different dinosaur feathers were from modern birds’. The baby dinosaur’s feathers were not for flight – perhaps they insulated it for warmth. Perhaps feathers retained by adults were used for signaling or some other sort of display, or maybe feathers were molted several times during life and ended up looking more like the famous Archaeopteryx, which is even older.
Scientists continue to debate the relationships of feather barbs and barbules, but the baby’s tail provides evidence of more than feathers. From the bones, it seems to be a two-legged theropod.
One other tantalizing clue the team found in the amber was the chemical signature of ferrous iron in the thin carbon film where the animal’s soft tissues would have been. That form of iron comes from blood proteins. csmonitor.com
Sadly, DNA doesn’t persist from the age of dinosaurs. So we can’t expect a clone of this baby that left its tail in amber to grow up today.