From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



Dino-Era Feathers Trapped in Ancient Amber
BY Jennifer Viegas  /  April 11, 2008

Seven feathers that either belonged to a non-avian dinosaur or an
early bird have been discovered encased in amber in a remarkably vivid
state of preservation, according to a recent Proceedings of the Royal
Society B study. The 100-million-year-old amber, excavated from a
Charente-Maritime quarry in western France, was found near the
fossilized teeth of a troodontid dinosaur. Troodontidae is a family of
bird-like, two-legged dinos that, other fossils suggest, had feathers
and laid eggs in nests, just as birds do today.

The teeth of dromaeosaurids — another bird-like group including the
famed Velociraptor — were also found near the amber. “These two non-
avian dinosaur [groups] are currently known to be feathered and are
thus possibly related to the fossil feathers from France,” concluded
the archaeological team, led by Vincent Perrichot, a researcher at
Humboldt University’s Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

In a separate but related finding, Malvina Lak of the University of
Rennes in France recently found 356 prehistoric creepy crawlies —
including wasps, flies, ants and spiders — trapped in 100-million-
year-old amber excavated from a different site in southwestern France.
Both teams used a sophisticated X-ray technique called synchronotron
holotomography to “see” inside the hunks of ancient amber.

“Amber fossils are characterized by an exceptional quality of
preservation that allows a detailed observation of all tiny
structures,” Perrichot and his colleagues wrote. When X-rayed, the
amber chunk with the seven feathers, now housed at the National Museum
of Natural History in Paris, revealed the feathers were lying side by
side and “very probably originate from a single individual.” The
feathers show what the scientists describe as an “intermediate and
critical stage in the incremental evolution of feathers, which has
been predicted by developmental theories but hitherto undocumented by
evidence from both the recent and the fossil records.”

The first feathers, it is thought, consisted of a base shaft securing
many loose barbs, sort of like strands of hair tied together at one
end. Those feathers may have been followed evolutionarily by an
intermediate stage, represented by the feathers found in the ancient
amber. The seven feathers “have a structure unknown in bird feathers,”
but they also have a flattened shaft, which the researchers say is a
“prerequisite for using them to fly.” Feather impressions found in
other fossils of the dromaeosaur Sinornithosaurus and a still unnamed
Chinese theropod had a similar structure.

Kevin Padian, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at
the University of California at Berkeley and a curator at the
university’s Museum of Paleontology, doesn’t rule out that the
feathers could have belonged to a dinosaur, but he told Discovery News
“their structure does not allow us to conclusively determine the
source.” While ancient amber provides a window into ancient life, it’s
an incomplete one, said Lak. Fossils of dinosaurs, birds and other
large creatures will probably never be found in such a way, she noted,
simply because they can “escape from the resin before becoming

Vincent Perrichot
email : vincent [dot] perrichot [at] atmuseum [dot]

You May Be Looking At Remarkably Well-Preserved Dinosaur Feathers  /
April 11, 2008

Following today’s Discovery News story about dinosaur-era feathers
trapped in amber , I had the pleasure of interviewing University of
Kansas paleontologist Vincent Perrichot, who led the research. He
provided a new photo of some of the feathers, which might have
belonged to a dinosaur—probably a troodontid or a dromaeosaurid— that
lived 100 million years ago in what is now France. Just imagine this
feathered creature marching over some tree sap, leaving behind these
downy remains as it went about its business. Here is a transcript of
the Perrichot interview:

JV- Why do you believe the feathers could belong to a dinosaur?

Perrichot- Feathered dinosaurs known from China display either
rudimentary filament-like feathers (not true feathers, merely called
proto-feathers), or feathers of already modern structure similar to
those observed on birds. Thus an intermediate structure, such as the
one displayed by the fossil feathers, could logically exist in
dinosaurs. Furthermore, since the first birds appeared at least 50
million years earlier (cf. Archaeopteryx), the feathers cannot be
assigned to an ancestral bird.

Additionaly, teeth from two species belonging to a group of feathered
dinosaurs have been found fossilized in the same outcrop as the amber
containing the fossil feathers. Thus it is entirely plausible that the
feathers belong to a dinosaur rather than a bird. But it is not
possible to decide based on isolated feathers alone.

JV- What do the fossils reveal about feather evolution?

Perrichot- The feather’s primitive feature – a flattened central shaft
composed of not-yet-fused barbs – differs from all other feathers,
both modern and fossilized, and reveals a key step in feather
evolution towards the ability to fly (i. e., between primitive,
plumulaceous feathers, and flattened, symmetrical ones which are a
condition for flying).

JV- If the feathers did not belong to a non-avian dinosaur but instead
belonged to an early bird, what species, or type, of bird might they
have belonged to?

Perrichot- It could be any type of bird, but since the feathers are
very tiny, they could have belonged to a kind of chick.

JV- If the feathers did indeed belong to a dinosaur, would these be
the first known preserved dinosaur feathers? It’s my understanding
that all other evidence for feathers on dinosaurs is impressions,
rather than actual feathers.

Perrichot- If (the feathers are) from a dinosaur, then yes, they would
be the first and only known preserved dinosaur feathers. What is very
different with fossilization in amber is that the feathers can be
observed in 3 dimensions, and even a color pattern is preserved, which
is not possible when feathers are preserved as imprints in sediments.

JV- Are any future studies planned on the feathers, and could they
possibly even yield DNA?

Perrichot- It is currently not possible to obtain true fossil DNA from
any inclusion in amber. All previous experiments on arthropods
preserved in amber failed in reproducing the DNA obtained, and it is
suggested that diffusion exists throughout amber, so that the original
molecules would not be preserved.

There is a small, unidentified fragment fossil attached with the
feathers in the amber piece, which could be a fragment of skin. Due
to  technical limitation, it was not possible to reconstruct this
using the X-ray synchrotron imaging. But we will continue our
investigations in order to reconstruct it, and maybe this will help to
decide between a dinosaur or a bird.

Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds
BY John Noble Wilford  /  April 25, 2008

In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones,
scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the
closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are
modern birds. The research, being published Friday in the journal
Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held
hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific
team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup
with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like
alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family
tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in
evolutionary relationships. Similar molecular tests on tissues from
the extinct mastodon confirmed its close genetic link to the elephant,
as had been suspected from skeletal affinities. “Our results at the
genetic level basically agree with what has been seen in skeletal
data,” John M. Asara of Harvard said in a telephone interview. “There
is more than a 90 percent probability that the grouping of T. rex with
living birds is real.”

Dr. Asara and Lewis C. Cantley, both of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center and Harvard Medical School, processed the proteins from tissue
recovered deep in bones of a 68 million-year-old T. rex excavated in
2003 by John R. Horner of Montana State University. Mary H. Schweitzer
of North Carolina State University discovered the preserved soft
tissues in the bones.

For the molecular study, Dr. Asara and Chris L. Organ, a researcher in
evolutionary biology at Harvard, compared the dinosaur protein with
similar protein from several dozen species of modern birds, reptiles
and other animals. Dr. Organ was the lead author of the journal
report, which concluded that the molecular tests confirmed the
prediction that extinct dinosaurs “would show a higher degree of
similarity with birds than with other extant vertebrates.” The
researchers said they planned to extend their investigations to
include comparisons of T. rex protein with more species of birds,
reptiles and other dinosaurs. Dinosaur paleontologists were not
surprised by the findings. An accumulation of fossil evidence in
recent years had given them increasing confidence in their contention
that birds descended from certain dinosaurs.

Science 25 April 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5875, p. 499: DOI: 10.1126/
Molecular Phylogenetics of Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus rex
BY Chris L. Organ, Mary H. Schweitzer, Wenxia Zheng, Lisa M. Freimark,
Lewis C. Cantley, John M. Asara

“We report a molecular phylogeny for a nonavian dinosaur, extending
our knowledge of trait evolution within nonavian dinosaurs into the
macromolecular level of biological organization. Fragments of collagen
{alpha}1(I) and {alpha}2(I) proteins extracted from fossil bones of
Tyrannosaurus rex and Mammut americanum (mastodon) were analyzed with
a variety of phylogenetic methods. Despite missing sequence data, the
mastodon groups with elephant and the T. rex groups with birds,
consistent with predictions based on genetic and morphological data
for mastodon and on morphological data for T. rex. Our findings
suggest that molecular data from long-extinct organisms may have the
potential for resolving relationships at critical areas in the
vertebrate evolutionary tree that have, so far, been phylogenetically

John M. Asara
email : jasara [at] bidmc [dot] harvard [dot] edu

Scientists Find Conclusive Evidence Velociraptor Had Feathers
BY Jessica Berman  /  20 September 2007

Scientists say they have evidence that a ferocious dinosaur made
famous by the movie Jurassic Park definitely had feathers.  Experts
say the dinosaur, called Velociraptor, had a wing structure just like
modern birds. A new study by American researcher Alan Turner and his
colleagues provides the first conclusive evidence that Velociraptor, a
sprinting, vicious dinosaur that lived some 80 million years ago, had
feathers. The Velociraptor in the current study is estimated to have
been one meter tall, 1.5 meters long and weighed just over 13

Turner, a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History
in New York and lead author of the study, says Velociraptor appears to
have been a smaller creature than in Jurassic Park, but just as
nasty.  “It’s sort of as if you scaled up a chicken and then gave it
really nasty teeth and big claws on its feet,” he said. Fossils of
Velociraptor found over the years in Liaoning province in northern
China reveal bird-like characteristics, but there haven’t been any
feathers on the bones unearthed there. One day, while examining the
forearm, or ulna, of a Velociraptor dug up in Mongolia in 1998, Turner
made an interesting discovery. “I just happened to feel these couple
of bumps along the backside. And it was like, ‘Oh, that’s very
interesting,'” he recalled.  “And then I kind of let it pass. And then
I was thinking about it more later on, and that’s when I took it to
the high powered microscopes and realized it has all these other
features that you would expect to see if it was a quill knob.”

The quill knobs found on Velociraptor are regularly spaced bumps along
the ulna where flight or wing feathers would have been attached. “And
when you compare them to the ulna of a bird, you see that they
correspond quite closely to these quill knobs,” he added.  “These
wouldn’t have been flight feathers in the Velociraptor, because it’s
an animal that’s much too big to have flown.  But it still shows that
feathers were attached to the bone there.” Turner thinks Velociraptor
might have used the feathers for show, to shield nests or to keep
itself warm. He says his team did not find quill knobs on other
fossils of the bird-like carnivore, but that doesn’t mean, he said,
that Velociraptor did not have feathers. The discovery of Velociraptor
quill knobs is reported in the journal Science.

Mark A. Norell
email : norell [at] amnh [dot] org

Feathers : Velociraptor mongoliensis

“Fossils of dromaeosaurids more primitive than Velociraptor are known
to have had feathers covering their bodies, and fully-developed,
feathered wings.[26] The fact that the ancestors of Velociraptor were
feathered and possibly capable of flight long suggested to
paleontologists that Velociraptor bore feathers as well, since even
flightless birds today retain most of their feathers.

In September 2007, researchers found evidence of quill knobs on the
forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia.[7] These bumps on bird
wing bones show where feathers anchor, and their presence on
Velociraptor indicate it too had feathers. According to paleontologist
Alan Turner, “A lack of quill knobs does not necessarily mean that a
dinosaur did not have feathers. Finding quill knobs on Velociraptor,
though, means that it definitely had feathers. This is something we’d
long suspected, but no one had been able to prove.[27]”

Co-author Mark Norell, Curator-in-Charge of fossil reptiles,
amphibians and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, also
weighed in on the discovery, saying:
“The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that
there is basically no difference between birds and their closely
related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones,
brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in
feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first
impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.

According to Turner and co-authors Norell and Peter Makovicky, quill
knobs are not found in all prehistoric birds, and their absence does
not mean that an animal was not feathered – flamingos for example have
no quill knobs. However, their presence confirms that Velociraptor
bore modern-style wing feathers, with a rachis and vane formed by
barbs. The forearm specimen on which the quill knobs were found
(specimen number IGM 100/981) represents an animal 1.5 meters in
length (5 ft) and 15 kilograms (33 lbs) in weight. Based on the
spacing of the six preserved knobs in this specimen, the authors
suggested that Velociraptor bore 14 secondaries (wing feathers
stemming from the forearm), compared with 12 or more in Archaeopteryx,
18 in Microraptor, and 10 in Rahonavis. This type of variation in the
number of wing feathers between closely related species, the authors
asserted, is to be expected, given similar variation among modern

Turner and colleagues interpreted the presence of feathers on
Velociraptor as evidence against the idea that the larger, flightless
maniraptorans lost their feathers secondarily due to larger body size.
Furthermore, they noted that quill knobs are almost never found in
flightless bird species today, and that their presence in Velociraptor
(presumed to have been flightless due to its relatively large size and
short forelimbs) is evidence that the ancestors of dromaeosaurids
could fly, making Velociraptor and other large members of this family
secondarily flightless, though it is possible the large wing feathers
inferred in the ancestors of Velociraptor had a purpose other than
flight. The feathers of the flightless Velociraptor may have been used
for display, for covering their nests while brooding, or for added
speed and thrust when running up inclined slopes.”