Nearly complete ancient baby bird discovered encased in amber

Remains of an ancient type of baby birth recently found encased in nearly 100-million-year-old amber is the most complete specimen of its kind discovered to date, according to the authors of a new study published online earlier this week in the journal Gondwana Research.

According to National Geographic, the hatchling was discovered by a team of US, Canadian and Chinese researchers and belonged to a group of birds known as the enantiornithes, which died off approximately 65 million years ago. Not only is it the most complete fossil of a bird from the age of the dinosaurs, it is the most complete fossil ever discovered in Burmese amber, they said.


Co-lead researchers Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences and Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and their colleagues, said that the head, neck, wing, tail and feet of the hatchling were preserved in the fossil, which was originally discovered in northern Myanmar. The bird was likely just a few days old when it fell into a pool of sap from a conifer tree, where it wound up being preserved until the amber encasing it was found, New Scientist noted.

Roughly half of the bird’s body was preserved in the fossil, which is 99-million-years-old. Skin and a clawed foot of the creature can easily be seen without assistance, Nat Geo said, and white, brown and dark grey-colored feathers were also preserved in the amber.

Xing, McKellar and their colleagues have nicknamed the young enantiornithine “Belone” after the Burmese name given to the amber-hued Oriental skylark, the publication added. The authors believe that the discovery will help shed new light on the differences between modern birds and ancient ones, which had clawed wings, jaws and teeth, according to New Scientist.

No usable DNA preserved by the amber, authors said

The authors of the new study did not actually find the fossil themselves – the amber encasing it was actually collected by a museum in China several years ago. Once that museum realized what they had, they contacted Xing, who assembled a team to study the specimen, the website said.

Their analysis revealed that the enantiornithine hatchling already possessed a complete set of flight feathers on its wings, but little plumage on the rest of its body. The discovery, the authors said, is new evidence to support the believe that these ancient birds were born with the ability to fly and were, in turn, less dependent on their parents than most modern birds, said Nat Geo.

Initially, Xing said that her team only saw the creature’s foot and some feathers, but additional CT imaging revealed the rest of the remains, which he called “a big, big, big surprise.” McKellar added that “the most complete and detailed view we’ve ever had,” telling New Scientist, “seeing something this complete is amazing. It’s just stunning.”

“Belone” is currently on display at the Hupoge Amber Museum, Nat Geo said, and later on this month it will be transferred to the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, where it will be part of a special exhibit that will run through the end of July. Despite the well-preserved nature, there is no usable enantiornithine encased in the amber, meaning that there’s zero change of this ancient bird species making a comeback, Xing told New Scientist.


Image credit:  (Lida Xing)