Bird with freaky long toes found in 99 million-year-old amber

Rodiano Bonacci
Luglio 12, 2019

The fossilized remains of an ancient 99-million-year-old bird which had a really long toe have been discovered in a chunk of amber in Burma.

"It shows that ancient birds were way more diverse than we thought", said Xing.

"Elongated toes are something you commonly see in arboreal animals because they need to be able to grip these branches and wrap their toes around them", according to co-author Jingmai O'Connor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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 mystery bird is now named Elektorornis chenguangi, with "elektorornis" meaning "amber bird". The appendage features an extremely long third toe never before seen in birds. It is thought that Enantiornithines became extinct during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event about 66 million years ago, along with dinosaurs.

The New York Times reported that the remains had lain undisturbed in hardened tree resin until amber miners found the fossil in Burma's Hukawng Valley in 2014.

During the area was full of trees that produced a gooey resin that oozed out of the tree bark. When traders showed the curious specimen to Chen Guang, a curator at China's Hupoge Amber Museum, they suggested that it probably belonged to an extinct lizard. "Like most birds, this foot has four toes, while lizards have five".

Experts are not sure yet what was the objective of the extra-long toe, but it seems that it could have helped the bird from the cretaceous period to find food in hard-to-reach places such as holes in the trees.

"I was very surprised at the time", Dr Xing told the Times, recalling that the fossil was "undoubtedly the claw of a bird". A year ago 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. It is believed that Elektorornis may have used its elongated toes for the same goal.

"This is the best guess we have", O'Connor says. "There is no bird with a similar morphology that could be considered a modern analog for this fossil bird. This fossil exposes a different ecological niche that these early birds were experimenting as they evolved".

These sorts of special adaptations may have helped propel Enantiornithes to evolutionary success during the age of dinosaurs.

This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Geographic Society, USA, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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