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Feathered forerunner or flight of fancy?

Has a feathered dinosaur tail been found in amber?

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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 Museummyanmars-amber-mines-dinosaurs-tail-preserved-amber
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’.

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.

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.

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; news.nationalgeographic.com. 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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