A new paper in open access
We describe three-dimensionally preserved feathers in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber that share macro-morphological similarities (e.g., proportionally wide rachis with a âmedial stripeâ) with lithic, two-dimensionally preserved rachis-dominated feathers, first recognized in the Jehol Biota. These feathers in amber reveal a unique ventrally concave and dorsoventrally thin rachis, and a dorsal groove (sometimes pigmented) that we identify as the âmedial stripeâ visible in many rachis-dominated rectrices of Mesozoic birds. The distally pennaceous portion of these feathers shows differentiated proximal and distal barbules, the latter with hooklets forming interlocking barbs. Micro-CT scans and transverse sections demonstrate the absence of histodifferentiated cortex and medullary pith of the rachis and barb rami. The highly differentiated barbules combined with the lack of obvious histodifferentiation of the barb rami or rachis suggests that these feathers could have been formed without the full suite and developmental interplay of intermediate filament alpha keratins and corneous beta-proteins that is employed in the cornification process of modern feathers. This study thus highlights how the development of these feathers might have differed from that of their modern counterparts, namely in the morphogenesis of the ventral components of the rachis and barb rami. We suggest that the concave ventral surface of the rachis of these Cretaceous feathers is not homologous with the ventral groove of modern rachises. Our study of these Burmese feathers also confirms previous claims, based on two-dimensional fossils, that they correspond to an extinct morphotype and it cautions about the common practice of extrapolating developmental aspects (and mechanical attributes) of modern feathers to those of stem birds (and their dinosaurian outgroups) because the latter need not to have developed through identical pathways.