Amber-Encased Wings Reveal Secrets Of 99-Million-Year-Old Birds

A pair of amber-encased wings found in Myanmar may provide ground-breaking insights into the biology of birds that lived alongside dinosaurs. The 99-million-year-old amber-encased wings include bones, soft tissue, and even feathers in an astoundingly preserved fashion.

Amber-encased insects, shells, and plants are all fairly common, and some ancient bird feathers encased in amber have been dated to about 125 million years ago, but finding complete amber-encased wings is virtually unheard of.

The two, tiny, amber-encased wings were discovered by a team of scientists that included Ryan McKellar, who is the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. McKellar has a special interest in amber and oversees several amber-related research products, but he had never seen anything like this before.

amber-encased wing details The spectacularly preserved wings reveal previously unknown details about ancient birds. [Photo by Lida Xing, et al.]While amber-encased feathers have been dated to the Cretaceous period before, and some have been even older than these newly-discovered wings, there is a tremendous difference between locating a single feather and finding complete wings. According to a report from the Washington Times, the spectacularly preserved wings reveal unheard of details like veins, pigmentation in the feathers, and even barbs in the feathers that allowed them to stick together during flight.

“It gives us all the details we could hope for,” McKellar told the Washington Post. “It’s the next best thing to having the animal in your hand.”

While ancient bird fossils have been found before, they are relatively rare due to the fact that hollow bones don’t mineralize very well during the petrification process. The issue is further complicated by the fact that feathers typically don’t fossilize at all, which has left enormous gaps in the understanding of truly ancient birds.

amber-encased wing slides Amber is capable of trapping and preserving organic material that wouldn’t normally fossilize. [Photo by Lida Xing, et al.]Since amber starts out as sticky tree resin prior to fossilization, it is capable of trapping and preserving organic matter that wouldn’t otherwise fossilize. In the case of the two amber-encased wings discovered by McKellar, it is likely that a hummingbird-sized animal got its wings stuck in resin and was unable to remove them. Tiny claw marks hidden in the amber substantiated the idea that the bird was alive when it became trapped. This also suggests that previous finds of feathers encased in amber were the results of birds becoming stuck, then later freeing themselves, from sticky resin.

In a paper published in the Nature Communications journal, Lida Xing, McKellar, and their co-authors revealed that the amber-encased wings belonged to a tiny bird known as enantiornithines that lived about 99 million years ago. The particular specimen was a juvenile that used small claws on the tips of the wings to cling to trees, which is probably how it became trapped in resin.

“The individual feathers show every filament and whisker, whether they are flight feathers or down feathers,” co-author Mike Benton, from the University of Bristol, told the BBC, “and there are even traces of color, spots and stripes.”

According to McKellar, the well-preserved wings proved a number of suspicions about prehistoric birds that paleontologists have never been able to substantiate, like the fact that enantiornithine birds were more or less fully developed at birth.

“They were coming out of the egg with feathers that looked like flight feathers, and claws at the end of their wings. It basically implies they were able to function without their parents very early on,” McKellar told the Washington Post. “Modern birds are lucky if they’re born with their eyes open.”

Details of the amber-encased wings were examined using x-ray scanning techniques, which allowed the team to uncover details of the feather structures and soft tissues without damaging the amber or the delicate wings encased inside, according to the BBC.

[Image via Shutterstock]