About 99 million years ago, a small animal with a strange lengthened toe died and partially buried in amber. His leg and foot remained unchanged in the hardened resin until the amber miners finally discovered the fossil in the Hukawng Valley, Myanmar, in 2014.
The preserved tip is less than half an inch between the joints and the ends of the claws, making it 41% longer than the next longest digit on the animal's foot. When traders showed curious specimen Chen Guang, curator at the Hupoge Amber Chinese Museum, said it probably belonged to an extinct lizard.
Mr. Chen thought the remains looked more like an avian species. So he met Lida Xing, paleontologist of the University of Geosciences of China, specializing in Cretaceous birds.
"I was very surprised at the time," said Dr. Xing, recalling that the fossil was "without a doubt the claw of a bird."
A handful of Cretaceous bird fossils have been discovered in Burma 's amber, but this is the first to have been identified as a new species. Elektorornis named Chenguangi, the specimen is described in a study led by Dr. Xing, published Thursday in Current Biology.
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E. chenguangi was smaller than a modern sparrow and belonged to a family of birds called Enantiornithes, which was abundant during the Cretaceous period.
Its elongated toe structure has never been observed in other birds, live or extinct. According to Jingmai O'Connor, co-author and paleontologist of the Beijing Institute of Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, his foot also had an unusual layer of spiky feathers, "unlike any adult bird known today."
Long toes are associated with arboreal animals that require firm grip on tree limbs. The hairs suggest that the bird's foot also had a sophisticated sensory system. Dr. Xing's team hypothesized that E. chenguangi may have used this long and sensitive number to probe tree cracks for insects and larvae, just like the lemur with aye uses a fine hand to extract food in Madagascar.
These types of special adaptations may have helped propel Enantiornithes to the evolutionary success of the dinosaur age. At that time, Enantiornithes eclipsed Neornithes, the group that contains all modern avian species. But that suddenly changed when a huge asteroid hit the Earth 66 million years ago.
Enantiorniths have been eliminated with non-avian dinosaurs, while Neorniths have become the diverse group of birds – from penguin ostriches, eagles to hummingbirds – that currently inhabit our planet.
"enantiornithines were good enough to survive and dominate in the Cretaceous, but maybe not enough to survive the massive extinction, "said Dr. O'Connor. She noted that the faster maturation cycles and more efficient digestive systems of Neornithes could give them an advantage.
Enantiornithines may not be among us anymore, but this amber fossil has provided a sepia snapshot of their lives and their world.
While many fossils trapped in amber like this are reshaping our understanding of the distant past, they can also be: amplifying insoluble social tensions in Myanmar in the present.
"Some of these specimens have high prices, and this money could in some cases help finance an armed conflict in Myanmar between the government and the militias," said Steve Brusatte, paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh. , who did not participate in the study.
"These fossils are extremely important, and the scientists who study them have done a great job, but I want to be sure that these the fossils were not accomplices by accident of human suffering. "
Dr. O'Connor admitted that she and her colleagues were becoming more aware of the ethical issues surrounding the amber trade, but added, "It's the conflict that has brought amber into the trade. , and not the reverse."