Some 99 million years in the past, a small animal with a bizarre elongated toe died and have become partially entombed in amber. Its decrease leg and foot remained undisturbed within the hardened tree resin till amber miners finally found the fossil in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley in 2014.
The preserved toe measures lower than half an inch from knuckle to claw-tip, making it 41 p.c longer than the following longest digit on the animal’s foot. When merchants confirmed the curious specimen to Chen Guang, a curator at China’s Hupoge Amber Museum, they prompt that it in all probability belonged to an extinct lizard.
Mr. Chen thought that the stays regarded extra like an avian species, so he looped in Lida Xing, a paleontologist at China College of Geosciences who focuses on Cretaceous birds.
“I was very surprised at the time,” Dr. Xing mentioned, recalling that the fossil was “undoubtedly the claw of a bird.”
A handful of Cretaceous hen fossils have been present in Burmese amber, however that is the primary to be recognized as a brand new species. Named Elektorornis (“amber bird”) chenguangi, the specimen is described in a research, led by Dr. Xing, printed Thursday in Present Biology.
E. chenguangi was smaller than a contemporary sparrow and belonged to a household of birds known as Enantiornithes, which was ample in the course of the Cretaceous interval.
Its elongated toe construction has by no means been noticed in different birds, residing or extinct. Its foot additionally sported an uncommon layer of bristled feathers, “unlike any adult bird known today,” in accordance with Jingmai O’Connor, a co-author and paleontologist on the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
Lengthy toes are related to arboreal animals that want a agency grip on tree branches. The bristles counsel that the hen’s foot additionally had a classy sensory system. Dr. Xing’s group speculated that E. chenguangi could have used the lengthy, delicate digit to probe cracks in timber for bugs and grubs, simply because the aye-aye lemur makes use of a slim finger to extract meals in trendy Madagascar.
These kinds of particular variations could have helped propel Enantiornithes to evolutionary success in the course of the age of dinosaurs. At the moment, Enantiornithes overshadowed Neornithes, the group that accommodates all trendy avian species. However that abruptly modified when an enormous asteroid hit Earth 66 million years in the past.
Enantiornithes had been worn out together with the non-avian dinosaurs, whereas Neornithes went on to turn out to be the various group of birds — from ostriches to penguins, eagles to hummingbirds — that presently inhabits our planet.
“Enantiornithines had been ok to outlive and dominate within the Cretaceous however possibly not ok to make it via the mass extinction,” Dr. O’Connor mentioned. She famous that the sooner maturation cycles and extra environment friendly digestive programs of Neornithes could have given them an edge.
Enantiornithines could now not be with us, however this amber fossil has offered a sepia-toned snapshot of their lives and their world.
Whereas many fossils trapped in amber like this one are reshaping our understanding of the distant previous, they might even be amplifying intractable social tensions in Myanmar within the current.
“Some of these specimens have big price tags, and that money might in some cases help fund armed conflict in Myanmar between the government and militias,” mentioned Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist on the College of Edinburgh, who was not concerned within the research.
“These fossils are massively essential, and the scientists learning them have carried out a superb job, however I need to make certain that these fossils weren’t by the way complicit in human struggling.”
Dr. O’Connor agreed that she and her colleagues had rising consciousness about moral issues with the amber commerce, however mentioned, “It’s the conflict that has dragged the amber into it, not the other way around.”