Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur! You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?
Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy. As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world. However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.
Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China! In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail! This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.
The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan). Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.
If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room. Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.
As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead. Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations. What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?