In science fiction, amber preserved the DNA that allowed rebirth of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. In real life, amber preserved feathers that provide a new image of what dinosaurs looked like.
"Now, instead of scaly animals portrayed as usually drab creatures, we have solid evidence for a fluffy colored past," reports Mark A. Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Examples of ancient feathers ranging from the simple to the complex are now being studied. They were preserved in amber found in western Canada, researchers led by Ryan C. McKellar of the University of Alberta report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.
Amber, hardened tree resin, preserved a mixture of feathers from 70 million years ago. Other feathers contained in amber dating to 90 million years ago are less diverse.
Specimens include simple filament structures similar to the earliest feathers of non-flying dinosaurs -- a form unknown in modern birds -- and more complicated bird feathers "displaying pigmentation and adaptations for flight and diving," the researchers reported.
Indications of feathers have been found on much older fossils, and the new discoveries indicate feathers continued to develop into modern form before the extinction of dinosaurs, explained Norell, who was not part of the research team.
A separate report by Roy A. Wogelius of the University of Manchester, England, published online June 30 by Science, reports the finding of trace metals in feather fossils, suggesting their colors included black, brown and a reddish-brown.
"Despite many reports over the past decade of feathered dinosaurs and new birds from China, only now are we beginning to understand just how diverse feather types were" millions of years ago, Norell said.