Scientists Study Fossilized Bird With Extremely Long Toe

Federico Mansilla
Julio 13, 2019

The fossilised remains of an ancient 99-million-year-old bird with a freakishly long toe have been discovered in a chunk of amber from Burma.

(Elektorornis means "amber bird", and the second half of the name is a nod to the discoverer of the fossil, Chen Guang.) Lengthy toes are a common feature of tree-dwelling animals like squirrels and monkeys because they improve branch grip. It is thought that the bird was probably the size of a sparrow and might have spent most of its time in trees rather than in water or on the ground. It was christened Elektorornis chenguangi.

Daniel Field, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, said: "The weird proportions of the foot of Elektorornis emphasises how unpredictable the evolutionary history of birds has been".

The elongated toe resembles those seen on lemurs and tree-climbing lizards, and illustrates the unusual lifestyle of some of the earliest birds that lived alongside the dinosaurs, researchers said.

The amber the foot was found in, measuring 3.5 centimeters long and weighing 5.5 grams, was discovered around 2014 in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar.

During the area was full of trees that produced a gooey resin that oozed out of the tree bark. Plants and small animals, such as geckos and spiders, often get trapped in the resin and become fossilized with the amber after millions of years. But lizards have five toes, suggesting the sample belonged to a bird instead.

The specimen was obtained from a local trader who had no idea what animal the foot belonged to.

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"I was very surprised at the time", Dr. Xing told NYT, recalling that the fossil was "undoubtedly the claw of a bird".

They chose to declare the bird a new species and named it Elektorornis chenguangi, which means "amber bird" in Greek. They believe the bird may have used the toe to find food holes in hard to reach places like holes in trees. Previous year another team of scientists found the remains of an ancient proto-spider encased in amber. The only known animal with disproportionally long digits is the aye-aye. The team believes Elektorornis may have used its toe for the same goal.

"Enantiornithines were good enough to survive and dominate in the Cretaceous but maybe not good enough to make it through the mass extinction", O'Connor said.

The Chinese team now hope to study proteins and pigments in feathers found on the surface of the amber in the hope of better understanding how the bird was adapted to its environment, for example by using its feathers for camouflage.

These sorts of special adaptations may have helped propel Enantiornithes to evolutionary success during the age of dinosaurs. The third toe measured 9.8 millimeters, which is 41% longer than the second toe and 20% longer than the tarsometatarsus, which is the bone in the lower legs of birds.

Lida Xing, Jingmai K. O'Connor, Luis M. Chiappe, Ryan C. McKellar, Nathan Carroll, Han Hu, Ming Bai, Fuming Lei.

The soft tissue, found on the bird's foot, is also without parallel.

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