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]

After 20 Years, the Largest Dinosaur Foot Ever Discovered Has Been Identified

In 1998, paleontologists unearthed a fossil in Wyoming that experts agree is still the largest dinosaur foot ever discovered. Comprising 13 bones, the nearly complete fossil is 3 feet wide. And researchers say they've finally figured out who it belonged to.

As Gizmodo reports, the massive foot was likely that of a brachiosaur that roamed the Black Hills mountain range 150 million years ago. Brachiosaurs were sauropods that used their long necks to reach vegetation growing up to 40 feet off the ground. They could grow 80 feet long and weigh 88 tons.

The process of identifying the foot, which researchers explain in the journal PeerJ, took so long only because paleontologists in the West are digging up more fossils than they have time to study. When they finally got around to examining the foot bones, they made CGI models of them with a 3D scanner and compared them to other known examples of sauropod feet.

Though they're confident the foot comes from a brachiosaur—any member of the genus Brachiosaurus—scientists haven't been able to link it to one specific species.

This may be the biggest foot fossil ever found, but that doesn't necessarily make this species of brachiosaur the dinosaur with the largest shoe size. Foot fossils are rare: Because they're smaller and they're extremities, feet are more likely to be washed away or picked off by scavengers than other parts of the body. So while titanosaur and argentinosaurus, the largest known dinosaurs, almost certainly had more colossal feet than this brachiosaur, their actual foot fossils have yet to be discovered.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Dinosaurs Had Dandruff Problems, Too

iStock
iStock

One of the most compelling aspects of paleontology is its ability to surprise even the most well-versed dinosaur scholars. Every fossil holds the potential to shed new light on how these prehistoric creatures lived, ate, and thrived.

Now, scientists have learned some dinos would have benefited from a medicated shampoo.

A study published in Nature Communications examining 125-million-year-old fossils discovered in China demonstrates that dinos expressed a condition common to humans: Their skin would flake off, creating tiny dandruff specks. The paper helps provide an explanation for how dinosaurs managed to molt, or shed skin in an effort to create tougher exterior tissue.

The specimens consisted of skin and feathers from three different non-avian dinosaurs—the crow-sized Microraptor and the larger Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus—and one bird, Confuciusornis, all from the Early Cretaceous period. The feathers were dotted with white, 1-2 millimeter blobs that initially puzzled scientists, who eventually visualized them with an ion beam microscope. Researchers confirmed them to be flakes of skin composed of corneocytes, tough cells containing keratin. The flecks suggested that these dinosaurs molted by shedding skin like modern birds instead of casting off chunks of skin like other reptiles.

The corneocytes of today's birds contain fats and loosely packed keratin, which allows birds to stay cool during heat-intensive activity like flying. The dino corneocytes were densely packed with keratin, and they probably wouldn't have provided much of a cooling effect. That tells scientists that the bird-like dinosaurs didn't spend too much time in the air.

If they didn't fly, why the feathers? It probably had to do with keeping warm and providing camouflage from both predators and prey. Researchers hope to continue their studies on the plumage to see what else they can learn.

[h/t Popular Science]

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