“The most diverse, amber-preserved, fossilized feather collection ever found – unearthed in the prairies of southeastern Alberta – is shedding new insight into the evolution of dinosaur and bird feathers.
“The fossils were recovered from pits once used to store tailings from coal mining near Grassy Lake, a hamlet about an hour’s drive east of Lethbridge.
“The region is a treasure trove of remnants from the dinosaur age. A team of scientists from the University of Alberta believes the feathers, 11 in total, are from the Late Cretaceous period, which spanned 99 million to 66 million years ago.
“In the world of fossil hunting, a specimen encased in amber is a precious and rare find. Tough and translucent, amber offers unparalleled preservation and an extraordinarily detailed window to the past.
“Veteran paleontologist Brian Chatterton, co-author of a research paper on the Alberta feathers published Thursday in the journal Science, said these fossilized feathers are significant because they offer the most comprehensive snapshot of the structure, colour and shape of early feathers.
“It’s the first discovery of three-dimensional dinosaur feathers,” added Dr. Chatterton, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. “The only previous ones occur in China and they’re all compression fossils, basically carbonized films on shale.”
“What is also remarkable is the range of feathers found. The work of combing through about 4,000 tiny pieces of amber, which were no larger than a centimetre and were collected over the past decade by scientists and amateur fossil hunters, fell largely to paleontologist Ryan McKellar. With the aid of a dissecting microscope, it took three weeks to screen the entire sample for feathers.
“The Alberta amber collection represents four distinct stages of feather evolution, including primitive single-filament protofeathers – fuzz, really, which scientists believe belonged to non-flying dinosaurs such as mighty tyrannosaurids – and complex structures with side branches that resemble feathers of modern diving birds…”