Ninety-Nine Million-Year-Old Bird with Teeth Preserved in Amber

This is awesome. Amber is a time machine of sorts, and this chunk found in Myanmar takes us back 99-million years to have a detailed look at parts of a bird from that time.

Researchers in Myanmar have discovered a 99 million-year-old baby bird encased in amber . The ancient hatchling died when it was just a few days or weeks old after a blob of sticky tree resin fell on it, leaving half of its body frozen in time.
Xing Lida, from the China University of Geosciences, led an international team of researchers in analyzing the three-inch specimen. Their study, published in the journal Gondwana Research, will help scientists better understand the toothed birds that lived alongside dinosaurs – and how they differ from birds living today.

Here’s an artist’s conception.

The article continues:

The amber encases the bird’s skull, neck, a partial wing, a hind limb and one foot. The hatchling would have belonged to a group of birds called enantiornithines, that lived during the Cretaceous period, 145 to 65 million years ago. They died out during the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.

The National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council partly funded the research. The fossil was mined from the Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar.

Scientists discovered the bird was unusual in several ways – the structure of its wings was very similar to those seen in modern flying birds – but it retained some features that are seen in more primitive theropods, the group of dinosaurs from which modern birds emerged.
Chen Guang, curator of a museum in Yunnan and owner of the specimen, told Xinhua : “Many people thought it was a lizard. But the scales, thread-like feathers and sharp claws on the feet were so noticeable that I thought they must belong to a bird.”
The team says its analysis indicates the bird would have been able to fly from birth, meaning it was less dependent on its parents for care. This is in contrast to modern birds today, where most hatchlings remain in the nest before developing the ability to fly.

Tseng Kuowei, from the University of Taipei, said the bird appears to have been hunting at the time of death. “There were no obvious signs of struggle,” he tells Xinhua. “The overall posture of the bird resembled hunting, with its lifted body, open claws and beak and spread wings. It was possibly engulfed by falling resin at the exact moment it was hunting.”
Researchers believe the specimen provides the most complete view of a hatchling’s plumage from the Cretaceous period discovered to date, and that it provides an excellent reference point for comparisons with the body forms of other fossilized birds and feathers found in amber.

“Overall, the new specimen brings a new level of detail to our understanding of the anatomy of the juvenile stages of the most species-rich clade of pre-modern birds and contributes to mounting data that enantiornithine development drastically differed from that of [modern birds],” they wrote.


The 99-million-year-old bird’s complete head, neck, part of one wing, and both feet were preserved, along with much of its skin, which helped the team map out the feathers and how they were attached to the tiny bird’s body. Its feathers were more like dinosaurs’ than modern birds’. …

“These birds hatched on the ground and then made their way into trees” just days after birth, says McKellar. Once there, the spiky birds—armed with a full set of teeth and wings with claws—weren’t babied like their modern relatives. Rather, their parents would have gone AWOL, leaving them to learn for themselves. “They’re not like the fuzzy, helpless chicks you’d think of nowadays,” he says.


Will DNA be recoverable?

Unfortunately, while the bird looks cool, there probably isn’t any DNA left to do a crazy Jurassic Park-type reanimation, reports New Scientist. All of the meat has since turned into unusable carbon.


The scientists concluded that their inability to detect ancient DNA in relatively young – 60 years to 10,600 years old – sub-fossilized insects in copal, despite using sensitive next generation methods, suggests that the potential for DNA survival in resin inclusions is no better, and perhaps worse, than that in air-dried museum insects.
This raises significant doubts about claims of DNA extraction from fossil insects in amber, many millions of years older than copal.
“Intuitively, one might imagine that the complete and rapid engulfment in resin, resulting in almost instantaneous demise, might promote the preservation of DNA in a resin entombed insect, but this appears not to be the case. So, unfortunately, the Jurassic Park scenario must remain in the realms of fiction,” Dr Penney concluded.


the fossilized specimen has instead been sold to the Hupoge Amber Museum in Tengchong City, China.
Of the specimen, just the skull, neck, one wing and a hind limb are preserved in the amber – enough, researchers say, to better their understanding of toothed birds and how they compare to birds in the present day.


Bummer. I’d love to see a living cloned baby dinosaur-era bird. What’s this about teeth?

Enantiornithes … retained teeth and clawed fingers on each wing, but otherwise looked much like modern birds externally


Most birds lost their teeth about 116 million years ago.

Modern birds have curved beaks and a hearty digestive tract that help them grind and process food. But the 1861 finding of the fossil bird Archaeopteryx in Germany suggested that birds descended from toothed reptile ancestors, Springer said. And scientists now know that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, carnivorous beasts such as Tyrannosaurus rex, which had a mouth full of sharp teeth. 

…  several inactivating mutations that are shared by all 48 bird species suggests that the outer enamel covering of teeth was lost around 116 million years ago


Mutant chickens can grow teeth.

The mutant chickens Harris studied bear a recessive trait dubbed talpid2. This trait is lethal, meaning that such mutants are never born, but some incubate in eggs as long as 18 days. During that time, the same two tissues from which teeth develop in mammals come together in the jaw of the mutant embryo–and this leads to nascent teeth, a structure birds have lacked for at least 70 million years. … a chicken’s underlying ability to grow teeth derives from a common ancestor with alligators–archosaurs–that is more recent than the one linking birds and mammals. 


A Greyland Goose has a beak with ridges and barbs on its tongue that look like teeth, but they aren’t.

I agree with the idea that artificially resurrected animals should be renamed with new scientific names.

If scientists could resurrect extinct animals – such as the dodo, Columbian mammoth or Tasmanian tiger – should these animals have different names that distinguish them from the original species?

… In a new opinion paper, a group of scientists said yes, arguing that a modified name would give de-extinct animals an appropriate distinction from the natural species, as well as a conservation status that could help protect them legally.
In practice, researchers could take the original scientific name, but add “recr,” an abbreviation of “recrearis,” the Latin word for “revived.” This addition, for instance, would change the Columbian mammoth’s scientific name from Mammuthus columbi to Mammuthus recr. columbi, said the paper’s lead author, Axel Hochkirch …

“If the DNA amount of [a resurrected] Mammuthus columbi is not high enough [compared with the original mammoth], one could even create a new species name, [such as] Mammuthus recr. americanus,” Hochkirch told Live Science in an email. “If each resurrected species is marked with “recr.,” it is very clear to all that we speak about something artificial, something that differs from the real mammoth.”


While I’d like to see extinct animals alive, I don’t think we should bring back animals that went extinct naturally. The environment they lived in may have been very different, and it may be cruel to bring them back into ours.

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