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

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]

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James St. John, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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The Mysterious Origin of Nebraska's "Devil's Corkscrew" Fossils
James St. John, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
James St. John, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Millions of years ago, Nebraska's remote badlands were home to ancient creatures like Palaeocastor, a small, now-extinct beaver. These rodents were the final clue in a nearly century-long puzzle that began when 19th-century geologists started exploring and describing the state's fossil beds, as PBS Eons explains in its latest video (below).

While digging at spots like the Harrison Formation, these experts discovered curious spirals of hardened sand rutted deep into the earth. Nicknamed "devil's corkscrews" by local ranchers, the huge formations stymied scientists, with some suggesting that they were the remnants of prehistoric plant matter or sea sponges. Palaeocastor bones were later discovered inside the corkscrews, and experts assumed that the ancient beavers had been yanked inside a predator's burrow.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, south of Harrison, Nebraska

Nebraska Tourism

Scientists had solved part of the equation: They knew that the complex spirals were once animal homes, but they overlooked their true creators. In 1977, experts finally realized that Palaeocastor was the architect of these trace fossils after noting that the formations bore the beaver's signature teeth marks. 

Learn more about Nebraska's corkscrew formations, and why Palaeocastor made such weird burrows, by watching the video below.

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
iStock
iStock

Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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