The incredibly well-preserved remains of an extinct baby bird have been "immortalized" in a 100-million-year-old piece of amber. Scientists have now been studying this beautiful chunk of natural history to understand how vastly different modern day birds are to their prehistoric ancestors.
The mid-Cretaceous amber was found in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar and sold to a Chinese museum in 2014. The research, partially funded and reported on by National Geographic, was recently published in the journal Gondwana Research.
The researchers used micro-CT scanning and 3D reconstruction to build up a better idea of what this specimen is all about.
The amber contains a hatchling enantiornithine, an extinct group of avialans much like a prehistoric bird. Simply by looking at the specimen through the amber, you can clearly make out its head, wings, feathers, and a foot with claws. Unlike modern-day birds, these winged beasts had teeth, clawed wings, and no beak. Unfortunately, they were wiped out around 66 million years ago alongside their dinosaur buddies.
“Burmese amber is exceptional among the Cretaceous amber deposits, in that the pieces are relatively large, clear, and durable, and the deposit has been mined on a massive scale,” the authors write. “Within the last twenty years, Cretaceous sites in northern Myanmar have become paramount for the study of fossil insects and plants trapped in amber, and recently these deposits have become increasingly important in the study of vertebrates.
Based on the pattern of the bird's feathers, the researchers think it was probably just a few days old when its fate was sealed by some dribbling tree sap. This means that the bird was potentially able to fly even though it was just born which, again, is dissimilar to modern day birds.
This relaxed attitude towards child-care might have been costly to the species. After all, this hatchling had a few days of life before it was encased in tree resin. As further evidence of that theory, paleontologists have found a fair few fossilized young enantiornithines in China, Mongolia, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and the US. This one, though, is the best preserved.
You’re also no doubt wondering whether it’s possible to give this bird “the Jurassic Park treatment” of extracting its DNA and cloning it. Study author Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina told New Scientist that the specimen might look like flesh, but it’s totally broken down into carbon with no useable DNA. Damn.
Nevertheless, the researchers conclude their study by saying “hopefully” more incredible animals will be found in Burmese amber. It also begs the question of how many important and beautiful fossils will never be found.