Amazing feather-containing Cretaceous amber fossil for sale

by Matthew Cobb

This popped up on my FB page, shared by a pal, ‘Spider’ Dave Penney. It’s a piece of Lower Cretaceous amber from Burma (Myanmar), which was dated with U-Pb dating of Zircons as 98.79 ± 0.62 Ma. As you can see, it is amazing and contains about 16 small wing feathers, apparently still attached to a piece of wing bone or skin.

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Note: I have removed this photo because I received information that the photograph was copyrighted and that the specimen, now owned by another museum, is under study and doesn’t wish to have the photograph shown until publication. I will respect those wishes and have removed the photograph.

I will restore the photograph when the publication is out.

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The picture was posted by Günter Bechly of Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Stuttgart. Günter says:

Our trader informed me yesterday, that he could potentially acquire the sensational piece shown in the attached photo. (…) This is an absolutely unique fossil and should be secured for science (certainly worth a Nature paper). The trader would offer the piece for 15.000,- Euro + VAT. Since our focus is on fossil arthropods and we have no specialist for fossil birds/dinosaurs at our museum, I want to bring this unique fossil to your attention. If any scientist can acquire it for his institution or knows somebody at a public institution who could acquire it, please contact me (guenter.bechly@smns-bw.de) as soon as possible, because the trader will buy the piece in Burma only if he knows that he can resell it soon. The trader has an excellent reputation in Germany and would of course give a money back guarantee that the piece is not a fake and was legally exported from Burma.

I don’t suppose Professor Ceiling Cat wants to turn WEIT into a kind of fossil E-bay, but this is a remarkable piece that some readers may be interested in acquiring for their institution. It also, of course, raises issues both ethical, about the trade in fossils, and scientific, in terms of the nature of the beast that cast those feathers… Chip in below. Zero marks to the first commenter who mentions Jurassic Park: we’ve already discussed that.

23 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I would say it ought to stay in Burma, but then many 19th century collections were purchased. The British Museum paid a huge amount, £700, for their Archaeopteryx in the 1860s.

  2. gbjames
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Wow.

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    which was dated with U-Pb dating of Zircons as 98.79 ± 0.62 Ma

    This is not my field, but wouldn’t that tell you the age of the zircon inclusions, not the age of the amber? Help from anyone with relevant expertise please.

    • Posted January 10, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I am not sure, but zircons are found in volcanic ash, and perhaps the amber was associated with an ash deposit. By dating the ash one would then infer the age of the associated forest that produced the amber.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      The rock matrix that the Myanmar amber deposits are found in contain zircon bearing volcanic fragments. So, the dating is indirect, as many dating applications are.

      For more detail try this paper.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        That covers most of the points I was intending to raise.

    • ratabago
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      The dating is a boundary. It is thought that the amber was formed during an event involving depositing of volcanic ash into shallow waters. The amber can not be considered older than the zircons.

      The reason they think the amber dates to the eruption is that the amber has many fine surface features that are uneroded. Preserving these features in that condition requires the resins be rapidly buried.

      (The above based on my general reading. I’m not an expert in this stuff.)

  4. Posted January 10, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on DownHouseSoftware and commented:
    An amazing piece of amber from the Cretaceous period. “[This] was a period with a relatively warm climate, resulting in high eustatic sea levels and creating numerous shallow inland seas. These oceans and seas were populated with now extinct marine reptiles, ammonites and rudists, while dinosaurs continued to dominate on land.” – Wikipedia

  5. Sigmund
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I attended a talk by Svante Pääbo a little while back, where he discussed the issue of ancient DNA and the conditions needed to preserve it. He mentioned what he described as ‘the secret’ that those in the field had discovered -that almost all of the ancient samples that yielded high quality DNA were from limestone caves, which preserve DNA due to their alkaline pH levels.
    In addition to this factor, more recent technological advances in sequencing – in particular the ability to create libraries of short (less than 40 bp) single stranded DNA – open up the possibility of getting DNA sequence from fossils we would have never thought feasible.
    I’d like to imagine there’s a limestone cave somewhere, deep under the antarctic glaciers, containing a bone fragment or tooth of a dinosaur, that we might one day be able to analyze in this way.
    As far as I know amber tends to be formed from an acidic starting material (plant resin) and while it preserves proteins (at least temporarily), it is the wrong place to look for ancient DNA – so there’s little hope we’d get DNA from those feathers or skin.

    • Posted January 13, 2014 at 2:32 am | Permalink

      If there is & we got to find it it would be after the apocalypse because a heck of a lot of ice would have to melt! Better chance of DNA from ancestral ratites or marsupials perhaps in Antarctica?

  6. Posted January 10, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’d missed taking part in the previous Jurassic Park discussion (plus I can afford to get zero marks!), but the following fits right in with Matthew’s earlier post. Some years ago I went to a talk at the Milwaukee Public Museum by Jack Horner, the paleontologist upon whom Sam Neill’s character is largely based, and who was a consultant for the film. During the Q&A, Horner was asked “What parts of Jurassic Park are true?”, and he replied “None of it. It’s all fiction.” He was then asked “What was your favorite part?”, to which he replied “When they gave me my check.”

  7. Posted January 10, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Sadly, I’m not wealthy enough to be able to buy something like that. And, yes, the ethical considerations are significant.

    It also seems to me that, wherever this fossil was found, there should be a reasonable likelihood of additional discoveries. Who’s managing that site and to what purpose?

    b&

    • darrelle
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      This piece is said to have come from the Myanmar deposits. Those deposits have been mined and exported since at least 1898. The Myanmar deposits are said to be the only commercially exploited Cretaceous era amber deposits.

      I have no idea about the history of regulation, or lack there of, of the amber. But “commercially exploited” in an area like that means concern is warranted.

      • ratabago
        Posted January 10, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        They’ve been commercially exploited much longer than that. I had an interest in ancient Chinese art at one stage. I recall examples of Chinese lion statues made of this amber, dating to (I think) the 4th and 5th Century. Unfortunately, I can’t check the exact dates, the books I have on it are all in storage at the moment.

  8. JBlilie
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    “Ownership” from a world-wide standpoint is thorny issue.

    I hope it ends up in the hands of competent scientists for analysis.

    Does it belong to the land owner?
    Does it belong to the person who holds mineral rights to the land?
    Does it belong to the person who discovers it?
    Does it belong to the organization that funded the exploration?

    Does it belong to the nation where it was found?
    Even if that nation professes a desire to destroy anything that conflicts with their interpretation of a religoion (The Taliban anyone?)?
    Even if that nation plans to sell it to the highest bidder, regardless of who that is?

    Does it belong to “humanity”?
    Or to some nebulous “science” (who in “science”)?

    I don’t know; but it doesn’t look simple to me.

  9. Posted January 10, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    It would be important to go back to the site and do more excavations. It is possible there is more of the early bird.

  10. Sigmund
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if you have covered this but the BBC site has a report today on another series of Burmese amber fossils of about the same age.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25674745

    According to this report these particular fossils show the earliest known evidence for sexual reproduction in flowering plants.

  11. Alektorophile
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the ethical implications of acquiring and using such looted specimens, I’d be interested in hearing what the general opinion of professionals in paleontology and related fields is. Looting, and the collectors’ market that drives it are obviously a big problem, but I wonder whether the fact that even a looted specimen can still have significant scientific value (like the amber above) makes these fields somewhat more accepting of, or resigned to, the existence of the fossil market. In my own field, archaeology, things are somewhat different, as any artifact not properly excavated and without context is largely useless and its information irreplacebly lost, and thus the antiquities market and the looting it causes are in many ways the major problem the field faces.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I have no experience in either field, but I bet what you describe for your field, archaeology, is similar for paleontology.

      A find wouldn’t be completely useless of course, far from it, but without the context of where it was found you have missed out on a lot of desirable information. Things like dating, environment and is there more to be found in the same place.

      This particular piece is said to have come from the Myanmar deposits, and it probably did, but I doubt any scientist would be happy with relying on that claim based on heresay. Also, I’m sure any interested scientist would really like to know precisely where in the Myanmar deposits.

      • Posted January 10, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but for good or il, many important fossil finds come from amateur and commercial collectors. The context may be lost, but the specimens themselves can offer valuable data. It is also difficult to be unsympathetic to situations where poor people must dig through fossil sites, trying to make some money to support their families.

  12. Marella
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Its safety is paramount, and the opportunity to study it. Neither of these are likely to be secured in Myanmar. I hope someone can find the money to buy it and at least keep it safe.

  13. Posted January 10, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Spectacular piece.


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