Feature

Did dinosaurs have feathers?

A new discovery in 70-million-year-old amber shows how far some dinosaurs were from the gray, scaly beasts we once imagined

These days, feathers are typically found only on birds and runway models. But recent studies have determined that back in their day, some dinosaurs were also covered with downy quills like today's feathers. And a new report from the journal Science shows just how colorful and complex those proto-feathers were. Here, a brief guide:

Scientists discovered some really old feathers?Yep. Eleven feathers were found by a researcher who was looking for insect remains in samples of 70-million-year-old amber. The amber — sticky tree resin that has hardened into clear, golden, gem-like stones — which was found in Alberta, Canada, came from a time when the area was "kind of like the Florida Everglades," says paleontologist Ryan McKellar, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times. Back then, in the late Cretaceous period, the warm, subtropical region would have hosted a rich diversity of plant and animal life.

What kind of feathers are they?A wide range of feathers, barbs, and other kinds of quills were discovered, giving researchers a glimpse into the development of feathers as reptiles began to evolve into birds millions of years ago. Some are simple bristle-like filaments, and others have hook-like barbs that resemble Velcro. Some of the feathers look like they were adapted for flight, while others are more downy and could have been used for insulation.

What sorts of dinosaurs had feathers?No one knows for sure. Experts are still trying to figure out what kinds of dinosaurs wore these feathers, which are in several shades of black, brown, white, and various other hues. Some of the feathers resemble those known to belong to a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx prima, a small, long-tailed dinosaur from the early Cretaceous period that was covered with a fuzzy coat of feathers. Other feathers may have come from dinosaurs that flew, or that swam in water like modern-day penguins.

Sources: CNN.com, LA Times, USA Today

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