The Early Bird Got the Amber | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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The Early Bird Got the Amber

The most complete bird fossil ever discovered in Burmese amber

This young bird, left, has been trapped in amber for 99 million years. A closeup view of its feathers, right, shows the exquisite detail preserved in this rare fossil.

 

This recently discovered amber fossil holds the remains of a 99-million-year-old bird. Measuring about 2.4 inches long, this is the most complete bird fossil ever discovered in Burmese amber. Like other bird fossils found in this rich amber deposit, this young bird is a member of the group Enantiornithes, early cousins of today’s birds that had teeth and flew over the heads of dinosaurs.

an artist's depiction of an ancient bird getting trapped in amber on the floor of a lush prehistoric forest, as a bird flies overhead
This illustration by Cheung Chung Tat shows the young bird trapped in tree resin, which would eventually fossilize into amber.

Burmese amber is often opaque, making it hard (or downright impossible) to see what’s trapped inside, so researchers turn to technology. For this particular fossil, a series of CT scans revealed that the amber preserved parts of the bird’s skull, spine, and hips, as well as one wing and one leg. Additionally — and this is very unusual — it offers a rare glimpse inside the body of this extinct bird, allowing researchers to peer into the chest cavity.

“New discoveries in Burmese amber are revealing the structure of ancient feathers in unprecedented detail,” said Luis Chiappe, NHMLA’s Senior Vice President for Research and Collections and a co-author of the new article. “These fossils are expanding significantly our knowledge of the poorly known diversity of tropical birds from the Age of Dinosaurs”.

The amber piece also includes insects, such as a cockroach, that may have dined on the dead bird before they too were trapped along with it. It’s not clear if the bird was alive or dead when it fell into tree resin on the floor of a Cretaceous forest, but either way, it preserved beautifully for today’s paleontologists to study.

the visual of the ct scan of the bird, showing the individual bones labeled
Stitching together many layers of CT scans allows a clearer view of this small bird encased in amber for 99 million years. The bones are labeled with abbreviations: ba = basicranium (part of the skull); ce = cervical vertebrae; fe = femur; hu = humerus; pu = pubis; ra = radius; th = thoracic vertebrae.

 

 

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