An extraordinary collection of ancient feather fragments preserved in amber has opened a window into a lost world, one that now appears populated by dinosaurs covered in plumage as rich and varied as that of modern birds.
The feathers date to the end of the Cretaceous, about 85 to 70 million years ago. At that time, the forerunners of birds were well on their way to taking wing; dinosaurs like Epidexipteryx and Limosaurus, discovered in China in the last decade and dating to approximately 160 million years ago, possess relatively bird-like bone structures and hints of what might have been feathers.
Those hints have been interpreted -- and given life in eye-popping artist renditions -- as feathers, an interpretation that was plausible but still inconclusive.
But the latest fossils, found in Alberta and described Sept. 16 in Science, leave little doubt. The age of dinosaurs was a feathery one.
"These lovely specimens of significantly older, smaller dinosaurs from China have got some sort of covering about them. But you can't tell if it's hair or feathers because the fossils have undergone the ravages of time," said paleontologist Alex Wolfe of the University of Alberta, a co-author of the new study. "Those fossils don't preserve the kind of detail that we have in amber, which doesn't fossilize but entombs an object.