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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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Courtesy of Bournemouth University
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Fossilized Footprints Show Ice Age Hunters Ganged Up on Giant Sloths
Courtesy of Bournemouth University
Courtesy of Bournemouth University

They just don't make sloths like they used to. Giant ground sloths from the Ice Age wielded razor-sharp claws and stood 7 feet tall, and new evidence suggests that humans—even children—stalked and hunted them.

By analyzing fossilized footprints found in the salt flats of New Mexico, researchers at Bournemouth University in the UK figured out how prehistoric humans managed to outsmart these furry behemoths. The tracks, which are between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, show two overlapping sets of footprints belonging to both man and beast. Researchers deduced that these early hunters aligned their footprints with the sloth's to avoid detection and sneak up on their prey. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

Human footprints inside of a larger sloth footprint
Courtesy of Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University

"Getting two sets of fossil footprints that interact, that show you the behavioral ecology, is very, very rare," Matthew Bennett, one of the researchers at Bournemouth, told Reuters.

They also found another set of human footprints, leading researchers to believe that hunters traveled in packs and ganged up on the sloth, with one group distracting the animal from a safe distance while another attempted to land a fatal blow. The clue was in marks they dubbed "flailing circles," which suggested that the sloth rose on its hind legs and swung around to defend itself. Anywhere they found flailing circles, human footprints followed.

The presence of children's tracks also showed that hunting was a family affair, but it probably wasn't as fun (or as safe) as going to a modern-day zoo. The prints were taken from New Mexico's White Sands National Monument, which has the "largest concentration of human and Ice Age giant megafauna prints in the Americas," according to researchers. The remote part of the park where they conducted their research is not open to the public.

Modern sloths are related to the giant ground sloth, which went extinct about 11,000 years ago, likely due to over-hunting by humans, scientists say. The fossilized footprints were digitized and preserved for future research using 3D modeling techniques.

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Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists May Have Finally Figured Out Why We Have Eyebrows
A Neanderthal skull
A Neanderthal skull
Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images

If you look at a pictures of some of the earlier branches of humanity's family tree, like Neanderthals or Homo erectus, you might notice that Homo sapiens got off relatively lightly, eyebrow-wise. Most early hominins had thick, bony brow ridges rather than the smooth brows of modern humans. For years, researchers have been arguing over why those thick ridges existed—and why modern humans evolved tinier brows. A new study suggests that heavy brow ridges had social usefulness that was more important than their physiological function.

Previous research has suggested that thick brow ridges helped connect early hominins' eye sockets with their brain cavities, or protected the skull from the physical stress put on it by chewing jaws, or even helped early hominins take punches to the face.

The new study by University of York researchers, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, used a digital model of a fossil skull, thought to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, of an extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis that evolved sometime between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago in what is now Zambia. The researchers manipulated the model, changing the size of the brow ridge and seeing what happened when they applied different bite pressures. They found that the brow ridge was much bigger than it needed to be if its purpose was just to connect the eye sockets with the brain case, and that it didn't seem to protect the skull from the force of biting.

Instead, the researchers suggest that the brow ridge played a social role. Other primates have similar brow ridges that serve a social purpose rather than a mechanical one, like male mandrills, whose colorful, heavy-browed muzzles serve as dominance displays. Heavy brow ridges may have played a similar role in early human species.

As Homo sapiens evolved, more subtle communication may have taken precedence over the permanent social signal of a giant brow ridge. As foreheads became more vertical, eyebrows could move more freely and subtly, leading to important social signals in modern humans, like expressions of surprise or indignation.

An accompanying analysis in the same journal, by Spanish paleontologist Markus Bastir, cautions that the results of the new study are appealing, but should be taken with a grain of salt. The specimen used for the digital model was missing a mandible, and the researchers subbed in a mandible from a Neanderthal, a related species but still a distinct one from Homo heidelbergensis. This may have altered the analysis of the model and bite stresses. Still, the study provides "exciting prospects for future research," he writes.

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