Scientists have long found tiny ancient amphibians and reptiles fully preserved in amber, along with snake skins, feathers, hair and bones, and insects and plant materials galore. Now, as National Geographic reports, they can add a 99-million-year-old baby bird to the list of creatures exquisitely preserved in fossilized tree resin.
Scientists reported the discovery in the journal Gondwana Research. (Some of the researchers were part of the same team that announced in late 2016 that they had discovered a feathered theropod dinosaur tail in amber.) They identified the hatchling as a member of a major group of toothed birds called enantiornithes.
Enantiornithes went extinct around 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous era (which began about 145 million years ago), leaving no living descendants. Researchers say the baby bird will teach them more about the long-dead avian group—which lived alongside dinosaurs—and help them identify key differences between its members and today’s birds.
Nearly half of the bird’s body is encased in the three-inch amber piece. Visible features include its head, wings, and a tiny clawed foot, and its skin and white, brown, and dark gray feathers are intact.
The bird’s molting pattern indicates that it was only days—or weeks—old when it died. So far, scientists have noted that the bird’s wings already had flight feathers, which suggests that enantiornithes were ready to soar the skies from the moment they hatched. This would have made them more independent of their parents than today’s birds—but this wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the hatchlings, as scientists believe they had a slow growth rate. Their tiny size would have made them more susceptible to danger, and without a parental figure to protect them, they would have been particularly vulnerable.
The bird was discovered inside a sample of Myanmar-mined amber, which scientists have recognized as the source of numerous Cretaceous animal and plant fossils. Guang Chen, director of the Hupoge Amber Museum in Tengchong City, China, purchased the fossil after he heard it contained a "lizard claw."
Lida Xing, of the China University of Geosciences, confirmed that the foot belonged to a enantiornithine, and a CT scan revealed the rest of the bird’s features, including its skin. According to researchers, it's the most complete fossil ever discovered in Burmese amber.
The fossil has been dubbed “Belone,” in honor of the Burmese name for the Oriental skylark. It will be on display at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History from June 24, 2017 through the end of July.
[h/t National Geographic]