'Incredibly rare': Dinosaur blood, feathers found in ancient amber

A new discovery from the University of Alberta suggests the plot of Jurassic Park never needed the mosquito.

'The little bit of tail comes from a dinosaur probably about the size of a robin'

Scientists have discovered a tiny piece of dinosaur tail entombed in a piece of amber from Myanmar. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum )

A new discovery from the University of Alberta suggests the plot of Jurassic Park never needed the mosquito.

In order to clone a new race of dinosaurs, genetic engineers in the blockbuster sci-fi film extract dinosaur DNA from insects who fed on the prehistoric creatures 130 million years ago and then became entombed in amber.

But real world scientists have announced a discovery which suggests that storyline was unnecessarily complex.

Paleontologists have found a tiny segment of dinosaur tail preserved in a golden nugget of amber from Myanmar, dating back 100 million years.

'It's just chock full of stuff'

"It's not a very big piece of amber. It's only about the size of a toonie but it's just chock full of stuff," said U of A paleontologist Scott Persons, a member of the international team of researchers behind the discovery.

"When you look through it, you can see a number of insects that are preserved in there, a few scraps of what appears to be vegetation — and then the big thing that we have is a very small section of a tiny dinosaur tail."

Persons said the shape of the tail vertebrae of the plumed creature suggests the dinosaur was a two-legged carnivore, no bigger than a common bird.

"The little bit of tail comes from a dinosaur probably about the size of a robin," Persons said.

"It may be a hatchling or possibly an extremely small species that's new to science."

'It's preserved in pristine three dimensions' 

The tail itself is covered with a delicate coat of perfectly preserved feathers, unlike any that have been discovered before.

Persons said the structure of the feather filaments is less symmetrical than that of a modern bird. It provides new insight into the evolution of feathers since prehistoric times.

"Normally when we get dinosaur feather fossils, they essentially look like a stain on the slab of stone that the dinosaur skeleton is preserved in, because they've been squished flat by all the rocks that have piled up on top of them," Persons said.
A scan of the dinosaur tail shows the unique feather structure which was perfectly preserved in the resin. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum )

"But with the amber, its preserved in pristine three dimensions, so we can study and look at how the branching filament that compose each feather come off, which is really, really cool."

And within the soft tissue that still tightly clings to the bones of the tail, scientists have found high concentrations of ferrous iron.

The researchers think that this is the residue of hemoglobin — or fossil blood.

"That's incredibly rare and it's really cool," Persons said.

"And one of the things this specimen tells us which I' really excited about is that if we keep looking in these amber deposits in Myanmar, we're probably going to find more and more of this kind of preservation." 

Though the research seems ripped from the script of Jurassic Park, Persons said billionaires with dreams of resurrecting the dinosaur race  in a secret lab will have to wait.

After 100 million years, the blood is too degraded for sophisticated DNA extractions, and the cloning technology just isn't there yet.

But Persons agrees the writer of the Jurassic Park films — Michael Crichton — was right about one thing.

"When he wanted to get dinosaur blood into the hands of his engineers, he went with amber," Persons said.

"He picked amber because he knew that it was really good at preserving stuff. It really does seal away organic material in a way that you don't see in other forms of fossilization, so he was dead on the money about that."

"But it's funny that we kind of missed the conceptual leap where you could find maybe a small part of a larger dinosaur preserved in resin, and that's what we've got."
In Jurassic Park, scientists in a secret lab use dinosaur blood extracted from amber to resurrect the species. (Universal Pictures )