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Feathered forerunner or flight of fancy?

Has a feathered dinosaur tail been found in amber?


Published: 14 January 2017 (GMT+10)

“Dinosaur tail with feathers trapped in amber found!”

Recently, chat rooms, news feeds and web articles have featured a story that have evolutionists (and some creationists) all a-flutter. One of the likely reasons that the story seems to have captured so much attention is the obvious similarities to the famous Jurassic Park series of movies. Combine dinosaurs, soft tissue, amber, and the special twist of the inclusion of feathers, and you are sure to get people’s attention.

 Photograph by R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum


Figure 1. The tail (and some insects and debris) in amber. We agree that feathers are visible. However, this does not show definitive proof of a feathered dinosaur.

My introduction to the story was on Facebook, via a CMI supporter who attended our Apologetics Boot Camp for Youth. She commented that an atheist friend of hers said that a feathered dinosaur tail had been found and that it ‘proved the Bible was wrong’.

Because they can’t peer inside what they are looking at, the researchers made some extrapolations based on what they can observe.

Why that conclusion? Because many evolutionists insist that dinosaurs evolved into birds, (and usually gloss over the problems) and somewhere along the way in the process they obviously must have developed feathers. If indeed they have found a portion of a dinosaur with feathers on it, they interpret that as being strong evidence in favour of their hypothesis.

Is it a big deal?

CMI has received many inquiries regarding this. First, we would like to remind everyone that CMI has been saying for years that the Bible doesn’t say that dinosaurs lacked feathers or fur. We simply don’t know, because the vast majority of fossils of dinosaurs collected have been just bones. However, we have noted that the soft tissue, imprints and other remains found have been inconclusive regarding the topic, to say the least. Therefore, even if this new discovery is indeed a tail of a feathered dinosaur, that would be absolutely no threat whatsoever to the biblical creation model.

Evolution and creation-believing scientists agree that dinosaurs had a unique physiology compared with creatures living today in many respects (which may have contributed to their extinction). So they could very well have exhibited a mosaic of traits we see in living creatures. We can’t observe them to know for sure, so we rely on interpreting the remains we discover.

The facts and how they were found

The original paper from the journal Current Biology1 described DIP-V-15103, the designation given to a 3.6 cm (1.4 inch) long section of a feathered tail in amber by paleontologist Dr Lida Xing (figure 1). It has two visible tiny vertebrae with soft tissue overtop. The tail is bent and has two rows of feathers running down its back and sides. It was purchased at an amber market in Kachin State, northern Myanmar (formerly Burma); Dr Xing didn’t find it in situ. Nevertheless, he assigned this to “mid-Cretaceous” and an evolutionary date of about 99 Ma (million years old).

What is inferred?

The original paper admits there is a lot about the nature of this tail we can’t really tell.

SR X-ray μCT scanning of DIP-V-15103 revealed that soft tissues have a density insufficiently different from the partially replaced skeletal elements to permit X-ray imaging and virtual dissection of osteology [bone structure] alone. Consequently, many diagnostic and comparative osteological details remain obscured.1

Because they can’t peer inside what they are looking at, the researchers made some extrapolations based on what they could observe. For example, because of the size of the two vertebrae they could see, they estimated that the fossil contains eight vertebrae and part of a ninth.

However, [only] two vertebrae are clearly delineated ventrally. Extrapolating lengths of these vertebrae, the preserved tail section contains at least eight full vertebrae and part of a ninth.1

The vertebrae were rather featureless apart from grooves on the underside, with none of the normal processes (protrusions). Because of lack of features, they say that the specimen was from the middle to the end of a tail that could have contained at least 15, and probably over 25 vertebrae. From the small size, they argue that it was a juvenile.

Why do they think it was a dinosaur?

Their conclusion was that the tail belonged to a “non-avialan [non-bird] coelurosaur”, the group of dinosaurs that include T. rex and Velociraptor. An obvious question people are asking—especially considering this was likely a sparrow-sized creature with feathers—is why conclude it’s a dinosaur and not a bird?

The researchers point to two main pieces of evidence. The first is flexible rather than fused vertebrae (the flexibility of the tail is important, because no living birds have a long bony tail), and the second is vertebrae with grooves on their underside that are commonly seen in therapod dinosaurs:

The presence of articulated tail vertebrae in the sample enabled researchers to rule out the possibility that the feathers belonged to a prehistoric bird. Modern birds and their closest Cretaceous ancestors feature a set of fused tail vertebrae called a pygostyle that enables tail feathers to move as a single unit.1

Do the arguments clearly support feathered dinosaurs?

None of these arguments are remotely conclusive. Firstly, even modern birds typically have between five to nine2 unfused vertebrae in their tails (excluding the pygostyle at the end), so even assuming the number of vertebrae they guessed are in the specimen is correct, the idea it could be a tail from a ‘modern’ bird isn’t likely, but a possibility.

With the lack of clarity of the morphology of the specimen and the fact that known birds can account for all of the features found, nothing in this find points exclusively to ‘dinosaur’.

Secondly, the original paper itself includes information that explains why it could be a true bird. For example, the researchers say they believe the (supposed) eight-vertebra section of tail was from somewhere in the middle of a tail that probably contained over 25 vertebrae. But the extinct true birds we know of (like Archaeopteryx and Jeholornis) had long tails that were only fused toward the end, not the middle, which is what they admit may have been found.

Also, the ‘bend’ in the photograph of the specimen actually looked kinked at an angle of about 120° rather than smoothly curved. So rather than a lack of fusion, this could simply be a matter of the tail being damaged or broken rather than flexible. So the specimen could also be from towards the end of a tail of an Archaeopteryx or Jeholornis, which evolutionists admit were true birds with feathers and had over 20 tail vertebrae.

Archaeopteryx retained an ancestral caudal vertebral count of between 20 and 23. The next most basal bird, Jeholornis, from the Jiufotang Formation of China and dated at approximately 120 million years old, was also long-tailed, and had 22 caudal vertebrae that are nearly identical to those of Archaeopteryx.1

As for the ‘ventral groove’ argument?

[T]here is a distinctive ventral groove on the caudal centra of the specimen, which is widely distributed among non-avialan theropods but which has yet to be reported in avialans (though the possibility of its presence in the two known long-tailed birds Archaeopteryx and Jeholornis cannot be excluded). [Emphasis added]1

Consequently, with the lack of clarity of the morphology of the specimen and the fact that known birds can account for all of the features found, nothing in this find points exclusively to ‘dinosaur’. One should note that for many evolutionists, feathered dinosaurs are an article of faith, and might lead to biased interpretations, as Smithsonian evolutionary paleornithologist Storrs Olson noted with the Archaeoraptor hoax.3

A hoax?

One other possibility is worth considering. Since this find was not dug up by a scientist, but purchased at an amber market, the possibility of another evolutionary hoax (like known feathered dinosaur frauds such as Archaeoraptor) is always something to be mindful of. There is a large trade in faked inclusions in amber acknowledged in the scientific community and this mandates close examination of any find to determine its authenticity.

Amber fossils are commonly tiny and thus if they are in the size range of a couple of centimetres and upwards, it is suspicious. Bigger and stronger organisms can usually break free from the sticky resin with greater ease. Moreover, since vertebrates, such as small lizards and frogs, are exceptionally rare in amber, one should be extra alert for such inclusions and be aware of the fact that almost all specimens on the open market are fraudulent.4

This specimen (like most amber used for jewelry) was altered in a way that may have weighted the arguments more conclusively one way or the other. As National Geographic pointed out:

The majority of Burmese amber is used in jewellery and carvings, and the…sample had already been subject to shaping by the time it was collected by the researchers. … The amber sample, from a mine in Myanmar, had already been partially shaped into an oval by a jewelry maker.5

The researchers acknowledge they were unable to do destructive sampling and chemical analysis of the amber to test its origin. Instead, they made “observations of insect syninclusions and preservation style, as well as the use of UV light, to detect distinctive fluorescence colours and search for signs of specimen manipulation”.6

Nevertheless, the lead author purchased the specimen from amber miners local to Myanmar, which is well known for its amber. Tests performed on it shows it seems to match other specimens from the region. Furthermore, palaeontologists from three continents have examined it and the research has been published in a peer-reviewed publication, which was unlike the circumstances surrounding the Archaeoraptor hoax.

Although we can’t be certain that it’s authentic, with the current state of the evidence we believe we should not presume it has a faked inclusion or otherwise tampered with unless contrary evidence comes to light.

Is this evidence for evolution?

Despite this being regarded by many as evidence for evolution it is actually quite impotent in advancing the idea. Evolutionists say that the flying bird Archaeopteryx existed approximately 150 million years ago. And as Xing et al. noted, the (turkey-sized) Jeholornis, regarded as probably a better flier than ‘Archie’, lived 120 million years ago. Further, we have often pointed out that the crow-sized beaked flying bird Confuciusornis is ‘dated’ at 120–125 Ma. This find is dated tens of millions of years younger: 99 Ma.

So if flying feathers had already appeared over 50 million years before this creature (whatever it was) existing, according to the evolutionists’ own dating, and beaked birds over 20 million years before, then this tail in amber has nothing to do with something new coming into existence that has never been there before. This is what evolution needs to demonstrate.

The bottom line

So was this a feathered dinosaur or simply a bird’s tail? We don’t know for sure, but we are skeptical as usual of the overly-hyped evolutionary conclusions being set forth. If God created certain dinosaurs with feathers, then so be it. But until solid evidence comes forth, it remains a concept, not a proven reality.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Xing, L.D. et al., A feathered dinosaur tail with primitive plumage trapped in Mid-Cretaceous amber, Curr. Biol. 26(24):3352–3360, 19 December 2016 | doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008. Return to text.
  2. Felice, R.N., and O’Connor, P.M., Ecology and caudal skeletal morphology in birds: the convergent evolution of pygostyle shape in underwater foraging taxa, PLoS One 9(2): e89737, 26 February 2014 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089737. Return to text.
  3. In fact Xing’s admission that “he knew he had something special” without having examined the specimen in detail or even being able to verify its origin smacks of evolutionary bias from the get-go. Return to text.
  4. Eriksson, M.E. and Poinar Jr., G.O., Fake it till you make it—the uncanny art of forging amber, Geol Today 31(1):21–27, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Romey,K., First dinosaur tail found preserved in amber, National Geographic, 8 December 2016; Return to text.
  6. Xing et al., ref. 1, Supplemental Experimental Procedures, in section “Rationale for analytical methods”. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Sam H., United States, 16 January 2017

I remember seeing an article about this exact same piece of amber. I believe the title of the article was like " Atheists: 1, Christians: 0"...or something of that sort. Similar to what Jannie S. already commented, none of the articles wanted to point out the massive ant in the middle of the picture! Seems to me there should be more interest in the ant. I checked out and If I was an evolution-believing person, I would be very puzzled about the ant in the amber and the ones mentioned in the articles I listed.

In one article it was mentioned that we have to look at the evidence through the "correct glasses". How do I alter someones origins paradigm even just for a moment to see through our "glasses"?

In any case, I am happy to see a CMI take on this amber fossil. Thank you.

Calvin Smith responds

Hi Sam, thanks for your email.

It is indeed difficult to try and get someone to see from your point of view. Typically it takes a piece of evidence so counter-intuitive to the person's worldview to jolt them into realizing there even IS are different way that the facts they have had explained from an evolutionary standpoint could be interpreted.

That's why facts like soft tissue in dinosaurs, kinesin motor proteins, coded language in living things etc are good ways to turn people from being evidentialists (where they believe the facts prove their position) to presuppositionalists (where they understand that facts are actually interpreted as evidence according to a specific worldview).

By showing that these facts can be far easily be interpreted according to a Biblical worldview than an evolutionary one, you may begin to breakdown the strongholds that have built up in their mind.

Some articles (see related articles as well) about the above topics-

I hope this helps.

I. E., Philippines, 15 January 2017

I know that even if feathered dinosaurs where found, they would neither prove evolution nor disprove special creation since the Bible does not rule out their existence. Although this isn't the case for extraterrestrial life. I have a question though: What do the dino-to-bird advocates need to do in order to sufficiently prove that birds came from dinosaurs? (although this is very unlikely to happen)

Calvin Smith responds

Hi I. E., thanks for your email.

To answer your question would probably take another article but here a few basic thoughts. Firstly it is important to remember that when you are dealing with historical science (events that supposedly happened in the past), nothing can be 'proven' in the same way which we use the word to describe for example gravity being proven, or at what temperature water boils at at sea level etc.

It's like when someone asks "What if they prove the earth is millions of years old?" It can't be done. In the same way, Creation cannot be 'proven' either.

All that can be done is assemble evidence more or less in favor of your hypothesis. So in that sense no amount of facts could 'prove' dinosaurs evolved into birds. However, just like in a courtroom scenario, the accumulation of good evidence can persuade the jury to believe something beyond doubt.

What evolutionists would need to show 'bird from dinosaur' evolution in this sense then is to show evidence from the fossil record showing the graduated changes that supposedly took place and provide good evidence of mechanisms that could overcome the massive hurdles to accomplish changes that would lead from one to another.

One would need to understand what those hurdles are (development of flight, differing lung system, scales to feathers to name a few) in order to understand what that evidence would need to be and we have several articles available on our website that deals with the topic. Keywords 'dinosaur evolved birds' will reveal a bunch of them. However this article would be a good place to start-

J. E., United States, 14 January 2017

Would this be evidence for evolution?

Although not the main point of the article, the ending seems weak. To say that feathers on a dinosaur would not be “evidence for evolution” simply because there were birds with feathers before that, I believe, ignores possible avenues of support that the specimen could take for evolution. First, it was a prediction of the theory that some dinosaurs would have feathers. If this indeed is the find, then this is what you could call “mounting evidence” even though it is inconclusive. Second, it could be called evidence for evolution because, if genuine, it weakens one of the opposition’s strongest arguments: missing links. It is obvious that a smooth progression of missing links would be positive evidence of evolution, and this find would move evolutionists closer to that goal. Noting that the fossil is “20 million years” late does not mean that the animal type did not exist before that. Indeed, in an evolutionary framework, it would perhaps be unexpected for the animal type to disappear as soon as a subset of them morphed into real birds; thus, it is likely that similar animals existed long before this particular specimen.

P.S. Overall, good article. Thank you so much for all your research.

Calvin Smith responds

Hi J. E., thanks for your email.

You are correct of course that if evolutionists could provide a smooth progression of missing links etc and make predictions that later prove demonstrated that would be mounting evidence etc.

However they have done neither. For example a real prediction of evolutionary theory would be feathered dinosaurs preceding, not following birds. And it's not as if mounting evidence in the opposite direction (such as over thirty cases now where soft tissue in dinosaur or dinosaur era creatures have been found now) is blowing away the millions of years time-frame required for evolution.

James K., United States, 14 January 2017

Well, it looks like the paradigm that ants evolved from a clade of subterranean wasps in the Cenozoic just got tossed down the drain. That ant is morphologically modern and within the limits of unremarkable variation. This is the conclusion the finding really points to, that academia messed up the phylogenic history of Formica and the entirety of ant evolution needs to be rewritten.

Edward P., United States, 14 January 2017

If all the dinosaurs suddenly died off, then why didn’t the birds go with them? Maybe the dino-birds, now that they could fly, ate all the land based with their new-found advantage. Yeah, they’d be like piranha from the sky. After the dinosaurs were all eaten, the dino-birds had to refine their evolution and some ate mammals while others scavenged and still others liked a mostly vegan menu better. And the proof is, we have vultures and eagles and parrots etc., don’t we?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

We advise caution with rhetorical questions. If the opponent thinks, even wrongly, that he has a good answer, he could be more confident of his own position than he was before. Compare “If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today?”

Jannie S., South Africa, 14 January 2017

I’m more interested in the insects encased with the ‘dinosaur tail’ in the amber. That ant does not seem like it has evolved at all? What is your take on that?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

One topic at a time, please ;) But maybe see Evolutionary Stasis: Double-Speak and Propaganda, Living fossils: a powerful argument for creation, and ‘Living fossils’ enigma, as well as the related articles under each.

WR B., United States, 14 January 2017

Let us not forget, it is a torn specimen in amber. The animal trapped had a moment to rend its tail off in a desperate attempt to escape. Because the two vertebra are partially separated from their feather covering, the resin was still viscous and flowed. Yet after that it hardened. Are these processes we can imitate in the lab today? Can true amber be formed, is it being formed in the world today? Or are we looking at unique conditions stemming from rapid burial and unique Flood chemistry in highly acidic or other chemical conditions?

If these conditions are unique, then they need to forget uniformatarian assumptions, and see God's judgement against sin and love for Noah on display. Yet, it does make me wonder just what those unique conditions were.

Jonathan Sarfati responds
Geoff C. W., Australia, 14 January 2017

They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

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