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Baby Bird Belone

99-million-year-old hatchling gives insight into extinct lineage of toothed birds

A closeup of Belone’s foot encased in amber. Photo by Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Researchers recently uncovered an ancient baby bird encased in 99-million-year-old amber, the most complete early bird — and the first hatchling — ever discovered.

Yes, you read that right. A baby bird. Trapped in amber. From the Age of the Dinosaurs. Do allow yourself a moment to fully process this level of amazingness.

The find comes from Myanmar, where a large deposit of Burmese amber holds secrets from the Cretaceous Period (145 to 65 million years ago). The specimen, nicknamed Belone by its discoverers, is a member of the group Enantiornithes, a lineage of birds that went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It looks similar to modern birds with two notable exceptions: it has teeth and clawed fingers at the end of its wings (a bit like mythical dragons).

Artist's reconstruction, based on preserved material and knowledge of Enantiornithes fossil. Courtesy of Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Portions of the head, neck, feet, claws, and wing are especially well preserved, including previously undescribed features such as the eyelid, external opening of the ear, and scaly skin on the feet. Detailed scans of the skeleton will allow researchers to examine fine details of the feathers, including their structure, color, and arrangement across much of the body.

To find so much material in amber is highly unusual, explained study co-author Jingmai O’Connor, a Research Associate at NHMLA and Professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Typically amber inclusions are quite small — until recently all we found of birds were feathers!” said O’Connor. “To have so much of an animal so well preserved encased in amber, we can reconstruct this ancient bird at a level of detail not normally possible with normal fossils. The unusual details preserved in this specimen such as its plumage help us to better understand the evolution of modern avian traits.”

There are a number of ways for long-dead organisms to become fossils, but none are quite as spectacular — or convenient — as amber. Entombed in hardened tree sap, living things are frozen in time and beautifully preserved after tens or even hundreds of millions of years. And with a bit of polishing, amber is wonderfully translucent, giving us an actual window into the past. Photo by Lida Xing, China University of Geosciences, Beijing (CUGB).

In a baseball-sized chunk of amber, this little bird was preserved partway through its first feather molt, which means it likely died when it was just a few days old. But even though it was so young, it already possessed a full set of flight feathers, indicating it could have required less parental care than most modern birds.

For comparison, Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett explained that many of today’s bird species take several weeks to develop flight feathers, but the amount of time varies widely, and the longer a bird takes to grow flight feathers, the more parental care it requires. Some species of Megapodiidae birds can fly the same day they hatch, while the wandering albatross takes upwards of nine months to develop its flight feathers.

Composite of CT scan data for head, neck, feet, and wing tip preserved within amber piece, courtesy of Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

“It’s fascinating to be able to place a 99-million-year-old bird at the short end of this spectrum,” said Garrett.

Dr. Luis Chiappe, Director of the NHMLA’s Dinosaur Institute and another co-author of the study, is an expert on early birds, which arose during the Cretaceous Period alongside dinosaurs.

“These spectacular fossil inclusions in Burmese amber are bringing our understanding of the early evolution of birds to new heights” said Chiappe. “They also open a window into the diversity of birds that lived in tropical regions during the Age of Dinosaurs, a geographic region for which we knew almost nothing.”


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