Multicolored Dinosaur Feathers Discovered in Alberta

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 some 160 million years ago, possess relatively bird-like bone structures and hints of what might have been feathers.

Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.

Researchers have discovered a trove 70 and 83 million year old dinosaur protofeathers, preserved in amber in Canada.

The tiny bits of feathers represent the full evolutionary swath of feather development, they say in their paper in this week's edition of the journal Science.