Scientists Find Feathered Dinosaur Tail Preserved in Amber

The following is an article re-posted from the BioLogos blog.  I’m thankful for the opportunity to share a story about this discovery. 

December 14, 2016 | By (guest author)

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On December 8, the journal Current Biology published an article that describes a special tuft of feathers found in a piece of amber only as big as a matchbox. What makes these feathers special is that they are attached to the tail of a juvenile dinosaur!
Since the 1860s, scientists have classified birds as closely related to and descended from dinosaurs, specifically a group called theropods, which includes familiar two-legged walking (bipedal) favorites like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. In 1861, a transitional fossil was discovered that linked birds to dinosaurs. Named Archaeopteryx, or “ancient wing,” the animal was a crow-sized, bipedal reptile with a short snout, many teeth, and a long tail—with a full set of feathers! Since then, other fossils that share characteristics of both birds and dinosaurs have been unearthed, and birds are now considered to be the last survivors of the much larger dinosaur group. However, until quite recently, scientists thought most non-bird dinosaurs were scaly and hairless, like modern day lizards or snakes. Starting in the mid-1990’s, that began to change, as more feathers of varying complexity were found with dinosaur fossils. Scientists have now identified so many feathered dinosaurs and early birds that there is a published field guide.
So, what’s so special about finding a feathered dinosaur tail in amber? Many feathers, ranging in appearance from primitive to modern, have been found in amber, which is fossilized sap from extinct conifers. But, this is the very first recorded amber specimen to have feathers that are attached to a part of the dinosaur.

This is important for two reasons. First, it allows researchers to know what kind of animal grew those feathers. In this paper, the researchers conclude that the tail is from a non-bird theropod dinosaur, possibly a maniraptoran, based on vertebral number and morphology. The amber specimen contains 8 ½ articulated caudal vertebrae and is only a small part of the whole tail, which is estimated to have at least 25 vertebrae. In contrast to the long flexible tails of theropod dinosaurs, both early and modern birds have fused tail vertebrae. Several anti-evolutionary organizations have recently published articles casting doubt on whether the tail is from a dinosaur (see here and here and here). However, young-earth creationist scientists Todd Wood and Marcus Ross have criticized these responses, and argue that the evidence pointing to the dinosaur identification is very compelling.

Knowing the tail is from a dinosaur helps to place the feathers into a context and timeframe that is useful for studying how feathers evolved over time. For example, the feathers found on this dinosaur tail are not the type needed for flying; this suggests that these dinosaurs used their feathers for other purposes such as regulating temperature or courting mates.

Second, amber preserves aspects of ancient tissues that other fossils do not. Non-amber fossils usually contain only the squashed impressions of stiff, robust feathers. The delicate plumes trapped in this gem are preserved in intricate three-dimensional detail. One particularly exciting feature of these feathers is that they have an arrangement of barbs and barbules (the hooks that hold feathers together and create iridescence) that have not been seen before in either modern birds or dinosaurs, yet this arrangement fits nicely between two previously predicted stages of feather evolution.

Credit: Figure 4 from Xing et. al, © 2016 Elsevier Ltd.

Earlier, I referred to Archaeopteryx as a transitional fossil, but I want to clarify what that means when thinking about evolutionary change in groups of organisms. It is easy to over-simplify, and think that evolution acts in a linear fashion, like this:

Instead, evolution is better visualized as a branching tree. As lineages evolve and diversify, they become distinct from one another, which is represented by new branches. Not only does the tree branch but, over time, it is also pruned as species or entire lineages (e.g. all Tyrannosaurs) go extinct. The dinosaur tail in amber represents only a single point on a branch that is now extinct.

Remarkably, this is not the first discovery of feathers in amber published by this research team in 2016. In June, the team described two tiny partially feathered wings that belonged to an enantiornithine bird. The feathers are more modern in structure than those in the dinosaur tail but both specimens are from the same region of Myanmar. These samples are all about the same age, which suggests that non-bird feathery dinosaurs lived side-by-side with early birds with modern feathers, just as a branching-tree model of evolutionary history predicts.[1]

Discoveries like these amber-preserved feathers provide new insights into the evolutionary history of theropod dinosaurs and early birds, as well as an inkling of their coloration. They also demonstrate the power of evolutionary theory to make accurate predictions about what the fossil evidence will show. But even as these discoveries confirm the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, they continue to reshape our assumptions about dinosaur appearance. If the vibrant birds we see today are living dinosaurs, why did we ever assume the extinct ones were dull-looking?

References & Credits

[1] The amber sample featured in this article has been dated to about 99 million years old. More information on how the sample was dated can be found here.

Special thanks to Joel Duff and Ryan Bebej for their assistance and advice in putting together this article.

Spiritual Pornography


Someday, I’ll have a little log cabin in the woods at the edge of the lake. There will be mountains off in the distance and gorgeous sunrises will paint the sky.

I should really take a vacation in the Caribbean. Relaxing oceanside is just what I need. I deserve the break from all the hard work I do.

My workplace is such a drag. I should look for a place where work is fulfilling and all my co-workers get along. 

Sound familiar?

I have become rather skilled at complaining lately. Mostly to myself, but I am sure my friends have noticed. To justify my malcontent, I’ve created a litney of excuses, such as:

I’m just so tired from work,

the weather has just been awful lately,

and I just don’t have time to do the things I enjoy anymore…

However, my excuses don’t get at the root of the issue. The real problem is that I have learned to focus on the often small inconveniences and troubles of everyday experiences while becoming blind to the much more abundant and meaningful good. Our current culture thrives on this attitude, focusing on success and growth as the markers of happiness. The emphasis to always seek bigger and better breeds malcontent and leaves no room for gratitude.

In order to cope with my selective perception and grumbling, I often turn to fantasizing about ideal situations, e.g., the log cabin dream house, where everything is awesome (as in the Lego® movie). But this is spiritual pornography:

“…creating a mental fantasy of a perfect place of people or people and not recognizing the good things around me. This spiritual porn is my nemesis. It’s poison.

-Kevin Rains in Living into Community1

Fantasizing about a trouble-free future negates appreciation of life in the present, minimizing both personal actions and interactions with others right now. This is not the way life should be. But what to do about it? Instead of cultivating a culture of complaints, nurture gratitude. Be thankful for not only for the career advancing, relationship building ‘big’ events in life, but also for the fleeting and fragile moments of grace. Pause and take note when a friend shares their life with you over tea, when you notice an unfolding bud, and when the sun scatters light just so in the sunrise before a busy work day. Recognize the unexpected good in the mundane.

Counter-cultural attitude transformation sounds like a big deal, but I’m hoping to start with the small stuff.


Trying to be thankful – even for snow…

1. Pohl, Christine D. 2012. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 215.

Au Sable Conference 2016

Early each year, the graduate students and staff of the Au Sable Graduate Fellows Program are invited to spend a weekend together in the Michigan north woods. Au Sable promotes education, research, and scholarship of environmental stewardship, from a Christian perspective. For graduate fellows, the conference is an opportunity to both build relationships and networks among academics from many major universities with similar interests and also refresh, worship, and reframe with a break from graduate student ‘life and business as usual’.

Visiting the ‘fingertips’ of the Michigan mitten in the dead of winter creates a vision of snowscapes – and the Au Sable campus did not disappoint, despite the strong El Niño year. Fellows enthusiastically participated in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hikes around the frozen lakes, and broomball as critical ‘retreat’ aspects of the conference agenda.

Dave Warners and the dramatic Au Sable campus backdrop

Professor Dave Warners, Calvin College, gave two plenary sessions focused on restoration ecology/reconciliation (restoring the human-creation relationship) ecology. He used two primary examples to illustrate his vision of what creation care can and should look like. The first highlighted the work of the Plaster Creek Stewards, a watershed-focused, ecological community restoration project in Grand Rapids. The second was the story of how and why the Chacón family (Rio Savegre Valley, San Gerardo, Costa Rica) transformed their land-use practices from traditional slash and burn dairy to ecologically considerate orchard and fish farming, forest preservation, and ecotourism.

The weekend was capped off by a Sunday worship session and a sermon/plenary contextualizing historical theological responses to environmental crises by Au Sable Graduate Fellows director Rolf Bouma.

2016 Au Sable Conference participants


Why get a PhD?

I’m currently writing  job applications, which is surprisingly reminiscent of working on my dissertation. Since I have a full-time position, I’ve been putting in at least 8 hours per day to stay on track, then working on the application materials early in the morning and late at night.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at this comic from The Upturned Microscope:


Source link:

Apparently, not much changes post PhD, though it did take a few years before I wouldn’t wince at the sight of my study species and could restate my ‘passion for science’ without experiencing a sinking feeling in my gut.

Really, though…is there any other reason to do a PhD in the sciences besides having a passion that can be played out through research or teaching? It’s not for the money, it’s not for the prestige, and it requires a Herculean measure of perseverance.

Stay strong, PhDers, the world needs you.

Role models

Being a 4th year postdoc has encouraged me to start looking around and determining what I want to do ‘when I grow up’ – though I also firmly believe that I will never grow up.

Applying for grown-up jobs also has me dwelling on my 32-year old story; what I’ve done, where I’ve been, and how that stacks up against both my reasonable expectations and my wildest dreams.

In just the last two days, I’ve come across social media blurbs about three women (two young, and one amazingly well-preserved elder) whose stories I’ve found particularly compelling and have inspired some ‘what if’ self-reflection and sometimes downright whimsy.

First, Heather Anderson, 34 year old personal trainer from Michigan. This amazing, independent, woodsy rockstar crushed the unassisted through-hike record for the Appalachian trail in 2015. She traversed 2,168 miles in only 54 days – alone and walking to her own food drop sites (that’s 5 weeks, let me repeat that…5 weeks…faster than any other female has done this before. Mind blown. Oh, and she has the same category speed record for the Pacific Crest Trail, too. Miss Anderson fits the bill for a role-model young female athlete (she’s older than I am, yay!) who’s in it for the beauty of the experience and not the fame. You can read some of her story here.

Second, Jen Tinsman, Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Jen’s work is broadly in the areas of speciation and conservation genetics; she’s evaluating how anthropogenic habitat shifts affect population-level adaptation in her focal species. What really impresses me about Jen is that she studies lemurs in Madagascar! For those of you that know me, you’ll get why I think this is really cool. When I was really young (maybe 4-8 years old?) my response to the adult question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “I want to study lemurs in Madagascar”. Jen, you’re livin’ the dream. Keep up the amazing work. You can read more about Jen and her research here.

Finally, a nun who loves to run captured my attention this evening. Sister Madonna Buder competes in marathons and IRONMAN Triathlons, at the spry young age of 84! I’m so flabbergasted by this humble and devout dear that I’m not sure quite what to say. You can hear her talk about how she sees competing as a near cumpulsory way to use her God-given talent in a short video here. I hope she keeps on inspiring others to do all they can as long as they can…for a very long time.

These three have reminded me that ordinary people really can accomplish extraordinary things and that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

A fresh look

Happy 2016!

As time turned to a new year, I realized it was time for a new website. I’m not thrilled with the WordPress twenty sixteen theme, but it’s a lot easier that building my own site in html.

The most exciting part about the new site is the inclusion of my small-scale photography pursuits, focusing on world travels, equestrian, pets, and human portraits. Hopefully I’ll have both content, options, and pricing up soon.

ALSO, Steve has created a new blog about carbon offsets in travel, called My Carbon Neutral Vacation. Check it out here:

Time for a change

Last night, we hosted a casual New Years Eve party to mark the passage from one calendar year to another. As we were waiting for the ball to drop (why do we do this, anyway?) with champagne in hand, I started to reflect on the year.

The bad:

Early 2014 – I totaled our favorite car, the weather was awful, I was unsatisfied with my job, and I injured myself beyond repair.

Mid 2014 was the slow, painful process of recovery. Extreme physical limitation (crutches are NOT my friend) taught me apathy, and how to shut out the world so that time would pass more quickly.

Late 2014 brought the realization that despite my best efforts, I was not yet healed. I would have to submit again to the surgeon’s knife in hope of regaining full strength.

Looking outside of my own experience, friends and family also struggled. Depression, fear, divorce, diagnoses, and lost faith seemed rampant.

However, through the memory of the pain associated with all the bad, the good began to shine through:

Community. Through all the pain of this year, we were there for each other. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the friends that were there, helping me, when I couldn’t help myself.

Hope. Through the apathy and disillusionment, there was always the promise of things to come. From immediate flickers of progress, like the feeling of joy when taking my first walking steps again, to the brilliant hope of the returning kingdom that makes itself known through a million widening tears in the fabric of this fallen world  – a day will come when all is right.


I can’t even express with words what the love was/is like.

When the countdown ended and the confetti in Times Square blanketed the skies, I realized that the tradition of celebrating the passage of time to a new year was so much more than marking the completion of another trip around the sun. Events in time are important, but the real celebration is centered on the timeless fruits of eternity underlying our earthly existence.

May community, hope, and above all, LOVE, pervade all our experiences in the new year.

Happy 2015, y’all.