Feathered dinosaur tail found trapped in amber

Scientists have discovered a unique find: a tail feather of 99-million-year-old dinosaur.

Doesn't belong to prehistoric bird, but a dinosaur, scientists say

A microscopic look at the dinosaur tail feathers. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

In 2015, scientist Lida Xing came across a beautiful and curious piece at an amber market in Myitkyina, Myanmar, likely destined to become a piece of jewelery. Trapped inside the yellow piece was a feather that others had overlooked as belonging to a plant. But Xing knew that it could be something more. 

And it was.

It was a piece of 99 million-year-old history: a dinosaur feather. 

This photograph shows the tip of a preserved dinosaur tail section, showing carbon film at its surface exposure, and feathers arranged in keels down both sides of tail. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar)

"This is the first time that skeletal material from a dinosaur has been found in amber," Xing told the CBC. "Previous finds in amber have included isolated feathers that may have belonged to dinosaurs, but without an identifiable part of the body included, their source has remained open to debate."

Also part of the study was the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate palaeontology, was involved in specimen photography and feather-work, determining what happened between when the dinosaur died and when it was trapped.

"It's spectacular," he told the CBC. "Because this is the first time we're seeing dinosaur material preserved in amber where we know for sure that we're dealing with dinosaur as opposed to bird material because we've got the skeletal material there, not just the feathers."

Lida and Ryan holding amber pieces from the study site. (Shenna Wang)

The idea that dinosaurs had feathers is a relatively new one, gaining more support since around 1995, McKellar said.

It's believed they began to develop feathers in the Jurassic period, between 200 and 144 million years ago. Dinosaurs began living side-by-side with birds in the Cretacous period, where this specimen is believed to have originated.

A close-up of the barbs on the feather. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM/ R.C. McKellar))

Using CT scanning and microscopes, the researchers ascertained that the feathers belonged to dinosaur with a tail that was chestnut-brown at the upper surface and pale or white on the underside. It is the first time that researchers have been able to glean colour out of a feather.

Along with being able to provide a picture of the dinosaur's plumage, it also gives insight as to how feathers evolved. This ancient find lacks a central shaft that is well-developed — by today's standards. The branching of modern feathers  — called barbules — must have formed before the central shaft matured.

The base of the feathered dinosaur tail with a follicle. (Royal Saskatchewan Museum/ R.C. McKellar)

The dinosaur is likely a theropod, belonging to a group of coelurosaurs. It would be a small, bipedal carnivore that ran around on the ground rather than flying around.

A small coelurosaur approaching a resin-coated branch on the forest floor. (Chung-tat Cheung)

Xing, who has discovered feathers in amber before finds this discovery particularly thrilling.

"I have been thinking," he said. "This may be the coolest find in my life."

McKellar agrees.

"The preservation is spectacular. It's one of those specimens that's just a jaw-dropper."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at