Rare Dinosaur-Era Bird Wings Found Preserved in Amber

June 29, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Bird (enantiornithes) feathers preserved in amber
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lida Xing and Ryan McKellar (CC BY 4.0). Feathers of 99 million-year-old bird wings preserved in amber.

Extinct toothed birds lived 99 million years ago.

Paleontologists have discovered two bird wings from the Age of the Dinosaurs, perfectly preserved in pieces of amber. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

Finding feathers in amber is extremely rare, so knowledge about prehistoric plumage is normally gleaned from feather imprints in rock. These preserved feathers therefore provide an unprecedented insight into the appearance and function of plumage in the Cretaceous period.

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Enantiornithes feathered wing trapped in amber
Enantiornithes feathered wing trapped in amber

Illustration showing the size of one of the amber samples containing a trapped wing, along with a life-sized reconstruction of the bird that the wing belonged to. Credit: Shenna Wang

CBC News reports that the amber samples containing the wings were found by study lead author Lida Xing, a paleontologist at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, at an amber market in Myanmar. The amber was traced to a deposit in northeast Myanmar that is known to date back roughly 99 million years — about 33 million years before the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.

Examination of the wings with microscopes and CT scans suggests that they most likely belonged to enantiornithes, an extinct group of toothed avian dinosaurs (aka birds).

Given their small size, the researchers believe the wings were those of chicks. Though they don adult plumage rather than the fuzz typical of modern baby birds, this actually confirms paleontologists’ suspicions that enantiornithes were born with fully formed flight feathers, making these birds independent from a young age.

Both samples contain skin, muscle, claws, and feather shafts, along with rows of feathers ranging from pale to dark brown. The authors conclude that most types of feathers seen in modern birds were already present as early as the Cretaceous period, and with similar arrangement, microstructure, and pigment.

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