For Lida Xing, a paleontologist based at the China University of Geosciences, scientific progress occasionally calls for some light espionage. This kind of situation arose last year, after he made an astonishing discovery at an amber market in Myitkyina, Myanmar. Suspended within a snowglobe-sized chunk of fossilized tree resin, Xing recognized the partial remains of an exquisitely preserved feathered tail belonging to a small juvenile coelurosaur, a type of bird-like dinosaur.
The fossil dates 99 million years back to the middle Cretaceous period, when temperatures were warm, sea levels were high, and dinosaurs walked among the earliest flowering plants. Its discovery at the market was a stroke of "great luck," Xing told me over email. "I often visit amber markets," he said. "But this is the only dinosaur amber I've ever seen."
So, where does the paleontological reconnaissance come in? Burmese amber markets happen to be fed by amber mines in Hukawng Valley, located in the Kachin State of northern Myanmar. This region is currently under the control of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army, which has a long history of conflict with the Burmese government.
"Resellers buy scraps from amber miners and sell them on the markets," Xing explained. "The mines are extremely dangerous, so foreigners can hardly get there."
Xing decided to go undercover. "I disguised myself as a Burmese man with a face painted with Thanaka," he told me. (Thanaka is a popular cosmetic paste in Myanmar, yellowish-white in color, made from finely ground tree bark.)
Stealthily camouflaged and armed with a fake ID, Xing snuck into the region. He met the prospector responsible for excavating the dinosaur tail, who guided Xing through the mines and showed him new geological samples. "We are very lucky," he said of the escapade.
As for the dinosaur tail itself, Xing persuaded the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology in Chaozhou to purchase it, and has since headed up an international team of researchers to analyse the fossil with computerized tomography (CT) scanning techniques.
The results, published Thursday in Current Biology, shed light on the evolution of feathers and reveal intimate details about this particular coelurosaur, including its coloration pattern, skeletal features, and even the hemoglobin molecules that ran through its blood, which left traces of iron oxide within the tail.
Xing and his co-authors, including paleontologists Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and Philip J. Currie of the University of Alberta, were able to identify the animal as coelurosaur by its flexible vertebral structure, which distinguishes it from the fused rod-like spines of avian dinosaurs that would have sported similar feathered plumages.
The feather coloration pattern suggests that the young dinosaur had chestnut-brown dorsal feathers, while its underbelly was pale. Xing told me that the brown feathers may have acted as "protective coloration," helping the coelurosaur blend into the woodland environments in which it is presumed to have lived. Small coelurosaurs would likely have scuttled on the ground hunting insects in tropical forests, likely populated by trees similar to those of Kauri trees extant in New Zealand. That said, there is still a lot to learn about Myanmar's rich paleontological history.
"The environment of the middle Cretaceous from northern Myanmar does not appear to be formally studied," Xing said. This gap in paleontological knowledge is caused both by the remote location of amber mines and fossil beds in the region, as well as the longstanding social and political unrest that makes much of Myanmar's north off-limits to outsiders.
The fact that this gorgeous snapshot of the Cretaceous world wound up in a Burmese amber market seems like a great incentive for more paleontologists to scout out local vendors. Indeed, Xing and McKellar previously teamed up on a June 2016 study about an amber specimen containing spectacular Cretaceous bird wings, which was also sourced from these markets.
Hopefully, these recent discoveries will spark efforts to collect more of these astonishing amber-encased time capsules, even if it requires top secret dinosaurian espionage.
These fossils may not bring dinosaurs back to life, as in Jurassic Park, but they still offer valuable and vivid tableaus of long-dead ecosystems.
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