Scientists Find 99-Million-Year-Old Baby Bird Preserved in Amber

Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences

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.

Researchers recently discovered a fossilized baby bird that lived about 99 million years ago, preserved inside a piece of amber.
Ming Bai, Chinese Academy of Sciences

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]

How Fossil Fuel Use Is Making Carbon Dating Less Accurate

iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga
iStock.com/Harry Wedzinga

The scientific process of carbon dating has been used to determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, seeds found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and many other archaeological finds under 60,000 years old. However, as SciShow points out in a recent episode, the excessive use of fossil fuels is making that method less reliable.

Carbon dating, also called radiocarbon or C-14 dating, involves analyzing the ratio of two isotopes of carbon: C-14 (a radioactive form of carbon that decays over time) and C-12 (a more stable form). By analyzing that ratio in a given object compared to a living organism, archaeologists, paleontologists, and other scientists can get a pretty clear idea of how old that first object is. However, as more and more fossil fuels are burned, more carbon dioxide is released into the environment. In turn, this releases more of another isotope, called C-12, which changes the ratio of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere and skews the carbon dating analysis. This phenomenon is called the Suess effect, and it’s been well-documented since the ‘70s. SciShow notes that the atmospheric carbon ratio has changed in the past, but it wasn’t anything drastic.

A recent study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the concept. Writing in The Conversation, the study authors suggest that volcanoes “can lie about their age." Ancient volcanic eruptions can be dated by comparing the “wiggly trace” of C-14 found in trees killed in the eruption to the reference "wiggle" of C-14 in the atmosphere. (This process is actually called wiggle-match dating.) But this method “is not valid if carbon dioxide gas from the volcano is affecting a tree’s version of the wiggle,” researchers write.

According to another paper cited by SciShow, we're adding so much C-12 to the atmosphere at the current rate of fossil fuel usage that by 2050 brand-new materials will seem like they're 1000 years old. Some scientists have suggested that levels of C-13 (a more stable isotope) be taken into account while doing carbon dating, but that’s only a stopgap measure. The real challenge will be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more on how radiocarbon dating is becoming less predictable, check out SciShow’s video below.

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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