A story published by National Geographic claims that scientists have found the remains of a 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail preserved in amber. That’s a significant find in and of itself, but what’s really remarkable is that the dinosaur tail supposedly contains feathers, and scientists are considering this to be further evidence dinosaurs evolved into birds.
My first reaction to this sensational discovery is, if it’s authentic, then the tail either belongs to a bird, or to some unidentifiable animal. But based on the available photos and lack of evidence, it’s difficult to accurately identify the organism, so I found the headlines proclaiming this to be “the first dinosaur tail preserved in amber” to be misleading. I wasn’t sure exactly what they found, but I didn’t believe it was a dinosaur. Nonetheless, I’m certain the conclusion has been accepted by many without much skepticism.
Therefore, I’m interested in finding out exactly what was discovered. And by examining the photos, I see what appears to be a tail with fine hair; there’s also an ant and other insects mixed in, along with some debris. But the photos get even cooler when magnified, and we can see the hairs are actually feathers, complete with rachis and barbs. But what’s missing is the rest of the specimen, making identification uncertain.
There’s little doubt the amber does indeed contain a well-preserved tail with modern-looking feathers, yet, despite the lack of specimen, researchers have concluded the tail belongs to a juvenile coelurosaur (a theropod dinosaur), perhaps a maniraptoran, about the size of a sparrow. But such a claim is mere speculation based on faulty reasoning. After all, isn’t it possible the specimen could belong to some kind of extinct bird? Well, researchers have refuted that, suggesting the specimen doesn’t have a pygostyle (a set of fused tail vertebrae), and have concluded that “the presence of articulated tail vertebrae” has ruled out this possibility.
This is curious because the specimen is supposedly 99-million-years-old, yet we have examples of prehistoric birds, like Confuciusornithidae, thought to have lived as far back as 125 million-years ago, which does have a pygostyle. Enantiornithes is another example of an extinct bird more than 130 million years old with a fully developed pygostyle. This means pygostyles existed more than 30 million years before the specimen was trapped in amber. So, if this specimen is part of the dinosaur clade maniraptora– a clade birds supposedly evolved from 150 million years ago- then wouldn’t we expect or predict the specimen to have a pygostyle? And wouldn’t a lack of pygostyle indicate it wasn’t a dinosaur evolving into a bird? I find it remarkable that, if this is a dinosaur tail with feathers, it hasn’t “evolved” a pygostyle.
Nonetheless, the absence of a pygostyle doesn’t rule out the possibility that the tail belongs to a bird because archaeoptyeryx, another prehistoric bird living over 150 million years ago, did not have a pygostyle. So I think it’s incorrect to rule out the clear possibility that this specimen does in fact belong to a bird.
Further, researchers describe the specimen as a 1.4-inch appendage from the “middle or end” of a long, thin tail. So even if the specimen doesn’t contain a pygostyle, we can’t rule out the possibility that the living organism had one. Since the pygostyle is found on the end of the tail, and the end of the tail was missing, then it’s reasonable that the pygostyle was cut-off at some point after or before it was trapped in amber. But the point is that a bird doesn’t need to have a pygostyle in order for it to be a bird.
Another point is that, even though the researchers believe the tail belongs to a dinosaur, they really don’t know what kind of dinosaur it was, but can only guess. Without any definitive identification, all we have is speculation, so we should be skeptical about their claims.
The sample does appear legitimate- although it’s important to know it was purchased from an amber market in the Kachin Province of Myanmar where it had already been shaped by a jeweler. There’s always the possibility that the specimen could be a fake, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Researchers say the organism “would likely have been incapable of flight”, but such an assumption would only be true if it had survived to adulthood and its entire body was covered in the same type of feathers preserved by the amber, and that’s not a reasonable assumption to hinge a scientific consensus upon.
It’s unlikely such a fine specimen could be preserved for nearly a million years without significant decay or damage, so it’s quite reasonable to challenge the age assigned to it. And if we consider the insects entombed with it, they appear to be modern insects, so we really don’t see any evidence of evolution.
In addition, other scientists remain skeptical and have pointed out that, if this were truly a dinosaur, there’s little evidence the tail could have balanced its body. Theropod tails need sufficient weight in front of and behind the hip joint, but we don’t find this to be the case.
I think the main reason the researchers concluded this specimen is a dinosaur is due to their belief in evolution, not due to evidence. Evolutionists need feathered dinosaurs to advance their narrative, and this is another opportunity to accomplish that end. I’d like to revisit this case if researchers ever obtain DNA samples, or obtain carbon dating results. But for now the specimen appears to be a bird, not a dinosaur.