BIRDS

Cosmos - - Trapped In Amber -

In re­cent years sev­eral spec­i­mens of feath­ers, even par­tially pre­served wings and whole birds, have been re­cov­ered from 99 mil­lion-year- old am­ber from Myan­mar. The spec­i­men shown here, first re­vealed in 2017, is an al­most com­plete baby bird.

So far, all the Myan­mar am­ber birds ap­pear to be­long to an early group known as the Enan­tior­nithines, which are cousins to all the liv­ing birds.

This is an in­ter­est­ing stage in the evo­lu­tion of birds from their di­nosaur an­ces­tors. Enan­tior­nithines had sim­i­lar flight feath­ers to modern birds, sug­gest­ing they were ca­pa­ble of skilled, pow­ered flight, while still re­tain­ing the prim­i­tive teeth and wing- claws. De­spite be­ing a di­verse and vi­brant group in the Late Cre­ta­ceous pe­riod, the enan­tior­nithines went the way of the other di­nosaurs at the close of the Me­so­zoic.

As with other crea­tures trapped in am­ber, all that is left is an im­pres­sion of the sur­face of the birds, but the de­tail and clar­ity are stun­ning. In this case, we can see each in­di­vid­ual scale and claw on the legs, sep­a­rate feath­ers, skin, mus­cles and many other in­ti­mate de­tails, in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal colours of the feath­ers.

Even though this is only a hatch­ling, barely three and a half cen­time­tres long, the fact that it is cov­ered in well- de­vel­oped feath­ers tells us in­di­vid­ual enan­tior­nithines de­vel­oped in a dif­fer­ent man­ner to their liv­ing rel­a­tives. Enan­tior­nithines ap­pear to have had fully-formed feath­ers at a very early stage of their devel­op­ment, while their modern coun­ter­parts are still only downy- cov­ered chicks – de­tails we would not have known if they had not had the mis­for­tune of be­ing en­cased in tree sap.

CREDIT: LIDA XING

Barely three-and-a-half cen­time­tres long, the pre­served de­tails of this Enan­tior­nithes hatch­ling are ex­tra­or­di­nary.

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