Some 99 million years ago, a small animal died with a constant elongated toe and was partially destroyed in amber. Its lower leg and foot remained undisturbed in the hardened wood resin until the old miners eventually discovered the fossil in Myanmar's Hukawng valley in 2014.
The preserved toe measures less than half an inch from knee to bell, making it 41 percent longer than next longest figure on the animal's foot. When the trader showed the curious example of Chen Guang a curator at China's Hupoge Amber Museum, they suggested that it probably belonged to an extinct lizard.
"I was very surprised at the time," said Dr. Xing, recalling that the fossils were "undoubtedly a bird claw".
A handful of bird fossils have been found in Burmese amber, but this is the first to be identified as a new species. Named Elektorornis ("yellow bird") chenguangi described the sample in a study, led by Dr. Xing, published Thursday in Current Biology.
[ Science Times page on Facebook. | Subscribe to Science Times newsletter. ]
E. Chenguangi was less than a modern sparrow and belonged to a bird family called Enantiornithes, who was abundant during the war.
The elongated toe structure has never been observed in other birds living or eradicated. Its foot also exerted an unusual layer of brushed feathers, "unlike any adult bird known today", according to Jingmai O & # 39; Connor, a co-author and paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
Long toes are associated with farm animals that need a firm grip on tree branches. The brush suggests that the bird's foot also had a sophisticated sensory system. Dr. Xing's team speculated that E. chenguangi might have used the long delicate figure to distinguish cracks in trees for insects and grubs, just as aye-aye lemur uses a narrow finger to extract food in modern Madagascar.
These varieties of special adaptations may have helped drive Enantiornithes to evolutionary success during the age of dinosaurs. At that time Enantiornithes exceeded Neornithes, the group containing all modern bird species. But it suddenly changed when a huge asteroid struck the earth 66 million years ago.
Enantiornites were wiped out with the non-avian dinosaurs, while Neornithes continued to become the different group of birds – from ostriches to penguins, eagles to hummingbirds
" Enantiornithines were good enough to survive and dominate in the Cretaceous but perhaps not enough to do so through the mass extermination, "says Dr. O & # 39; Connor. She noted that the faster maturation cycles and more efficient digestive systems in Neornithes may have given them an edge.
Enantiornitins can no longer be with us, but this yellow fossil has given a sepia-toned snapshot of their lives and their world.
While many fossils captured in yellow as this transforms our understanding of the distant past, they may also be reinforcing unpleasant social tensions in Myanmar in the present.
"Some of these specimens have large price tags, and that in some cases money can help fund armed conflict in Myanmar between the government and the militias," said Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at Edinburgh University who was not involved in the study. 19659022] "These fossils are extremely important, and the researchers studying them have done an excellent job, but I want to make sure that these fossils were not sometimes complicated for human suffering."
Dr. O & # 39; Connor agreed that she and her colleagues had increased awareness of ethical issues with the yellow trade, but said, "It is the conflict that has drawn the yellow into it, not the other way around."