Feathers found in amber offer glimpse of early birds, dinosaurs

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A trove of ancient feathers both primitive and complex is providing scientists with an unprecedented snapshot of what some dinosaurs and birds looked like during the Cretaceous period.

An account published online Thursday in the journal Science describes a host of feathers and feather-like filaments found in western Canada. The structures were ensconced in 70-million-year-old amber.


Taken together, the feathers and filaments point to the diversity of this prehistoric plumed menagerie, said study coauthor Alexander Wolfe, a paleoecologist at the University of Alberta in Canada.

‘The simplest feathers are of greatest interest because these protofeathers have been inferred to be the evolutionary precedent to evolved feathers,’ Wolfe said in an interview with The Times.

Scientists have posited that feathers developed first as single, hair-like protrusions meant for insulation, then began to grow in clumps, and then as increasingly complex structures. At some point, they were probably used for other purposes (such as attracting mates), and later for flight.

Many of the samples described in the study accurately match one of those stages. Some feathers even had coiled barbules, similar to those that have evolved on modern birds such as sandgrouses, which allow the animals to transport water to the nest to cool their incubating eggs.

‘We never thought we’d have fossils to show all these feathers, from primitive stage-one [protofeathers] to feathers of modern aspect,’ Mark Norell, chairman of the division of paleontology at the American Museum of the Natural History, said in an interview with The Times. He was not involved in the study.


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-- Amina Khan
Twitter: LAT_aminakhan