Baby Dinosaur's 99 Million-Year-Old Tail, Encased In Amber, Surfaces In Myanmar : The Two-Way Millions of years ago, a dinosaur about the size of a sparrow had a bad day. It got stuck in tree resin. Paleontologists recently came across the rare amber fossil containing its tail in Myanmar.
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Baby Dinosaur's 99 Million-Year-Old Tail, Encased In Amber, Surfaces In Myanmar

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Baby Dinosaur's 99 Million-Year-Old Tail, Encased In Amber, Surfaces In Myanmar

Baby Dinosaur's 99 Million-Year-Old Tail, Encased In Amber, Surfaces In Myanmar

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we have one more science story for you. A rare piece of amber found in Myanmar is getting a lot of attention because it contains the tail of a tiny dinosaur, complete with fluffy feathers. As NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, the dinosaur tail could give important clues at how feathers developed.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Ninety-nine million years ago, a baby dinosaur about the size of a sparrow ran into trouble. It might have rubbed up against a sticky tree trunk and gotten stuck, or it died and then fell into the sap.

RYAN MCKELLAR: Either way, it had a bad day.

BICHELL: That's Ryan McKellar, a curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada. He says this little dinosaur was no terror of "Jurassic Park."

MCKELLAR: This particular specimen - probably fairly cute and fuzzy.

BICHELL: Had the dinosaur had a more auspicious day, he says, it probably would have grown into something about the size of an ostrich with a dense feathery tail. But instead, millions of years later, McKellar's colleague ran into that young tail at a market in Myanmar, beautifully preserved in amber alongside a couple of prehistoric ants. As McKellar and his colleagues wrote Thursday in the journal Current Biology, it was probably a relative of iconic meat eaters.

MCKELLAR: To put this into context, it's somewhere between Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor in terms of the placement in the family tree.

BICHELL: They nicknamed it Eva. And Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at Bristol University in the U.K., says Eva's tiny, whip-like tail is really special because parts of dinosaurs hardly ever turn up in amber.

JAKOB VINTHER: We have, like, thousands of insect fossils and things like that, but finding vertebrate fossils in amber is extremely rare.

BICHELL: And the feathers are an important clue to solving a long-running debate about how and why feathers developed. Eva's feathers were too floppy to fly, but they do look kind of like bird feathers with very delicate strands. Those strands are responsible for making peacocks and hummingbirds look so shiny. So maybe, Vinther says, way before feathers became useful for flying, they helped dinosaurs like Eva sparkle with a metallic shine.

VINTHER: Some of these very bright colors like this metallic iridescence could have originated earlier. I think that's the most interesting thing.

BICHELL: So maybe beauty helped pave the way for flight. And maybe dinosaurs from Eva's time were a lot flashier than people thought. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.

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