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Ancient Baby Bird

A rare fossil of a hatchling bird from the Age of Dinosaurs

A false-color image of the fossilized bird alongside an illustration by Raul Martin of how the young bird may have looked during the Early Cretaceous Period.


The fossil is teeny tiny — less than two inches in length —  but it holds a lot of information. It’s the nearly complete skeleton of baby bird that lived 127 million years ago. Luckily for researchers (but most unluckily for the bird), it died just after hatching, providing an exceedingly rare glimpse into these ancient birds’ growth and development.

“This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the lives of ancient birds that lived during the Age of Dinosaurs,” said Luis Chiappe, NHMLA Dinosaur Institute Director and coauthor of the study.

The researchers took this itty-bitty bird fossil — one of the smallest ever discovered — to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, to use a particle accelerator to get highly detailed images of the fossilized bones. From the looks of it, this bird’s bones were still developing, so it was probably not yet able to fly.

"New technologies are offering palaeontologists unprecedented capacities to investigate provocative fossils,” said study coauthor Fabien Knoll from the ARAID—Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis in Spain and the University of Manchester.

an illustration of a small baby bird from the Age of Dinosaurs. it has small feathers and is standing on the edge of an ancient lake
An artist’s rendering of the young Enantiornithes bird, which lived during the Early Cretaceous Period, by Raul Martin. The inset compares the size of the bird to a modern American cockroach.

The other interesting finding from this study deals with Enantiornithes as a whole, the diverse group of early birds this fossil belongs to. Chiappe, Knoll, and collaborators compared the stages of bone development in every known fossil from young Enantiornithes birds, and it’s all over the map. There is a lot of variation among this group when it comes to bone development, with some species developing bones earlier or faster than others. This means that some of these ancient birds could have been like today’s chickens, which from birth have feathers and can move around, while others might have been more similar to modern lovebirds, which hatch naked with their eyes shut tight, requiring round-the-clock care.

“It is amazing to realize how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago,” said Chiappe.

a false-color image of the fossilized remains of a baby bird. split down the middle, the fossil is in two slabs that are mirror images of each other. the bones appear in blue
False color synchrotron-based mapping of iron (red), silicon (green) and phosphorus (blue) in the new hatchling bird from Spain. The fossil is contained in two slabs. This particular experiment was conducted at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.


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