CLOSE

Scientists Find 100-Million-Year-Old Wings Beautifully Preserved in Amber

Many events that have changed the course of Earth’s history have been lost to time. But some very special things have survived, and we’re learning from them every day. The latest prehistoric find is two tiny feathered wings preserved in Burmese amber. An analysis of the wings was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists have found individual feathers before, pressed into fossils and suspended in amber. While this fact is, in itself, impressive, there’s a limit to how much information we can draw from these specimens. The imprint of a feather can’t tell us much about color, and absent any other evidence, a feather separated from its owner can be hard to place in context.

Feathers play a big role in the evolution of life on our planet. We know now that most, if not all, dinosaurs were feathered, and their avian descendants certainly are. But what happened in between is still a little murky.

So when researchers found two beautifully preserved prehistoric wings inside small drops of amber, they were excited. They’d purchased the amber at a market in the Kachin state, Myanmar, a region that has become known among paleontologists for the richness of its preserved specimens. David Grimaldi is a curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “About 70 percent of the Burmese amber is barren, but the other 30 percent features phenomenal biodiversity,” Grimaldi told National Geographic.

The amber specimens containing the wings are very small; one is less than an inch long, the other just under 2 inches. Nestled inside each is a delicate, feathery wing, complete with skin, claws, muscle, and feather shafts.

Co-author Ryan McKellar is curator of invertebrate palaeontology at Canada's Royal Saskatchewan Museum. "The biggest problem we face with feathers in amber is that we usually get small fragments or isolated feathers, and we’re never quite sure who produced [them]," he said. "We don’t get something like this. It’s mind-blowingly cool."

Computer renderings of the wings. Image credit: Xing et al., 2016 in Nature Communications

They also discovered that these wings are 100 million years old. After removing the pieces and analyzing them, the researchers concluded that they likely belonged to two juveniles from a group of protobirds called enantiornithes.  

Had the researchers not spotted and snapped up the amber, the specimens would have been made into jewelry. A designer had planned to carve the smaller piece into an “angel’s wings” pendant. Already, the researchers were late: While examining the specimen, they realized that it had been chipped or broken off a larger piece of amber, likely containing the rest of the dinosaur’s remains. Still, they’re happy with what they got, says co-author Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences: "It is a real angel.”

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
iStock
iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios