100 Million-Year-Old Bird With Unusually Long Toe Discovered in Amber

This is a reconstruction of Elektorornis chenguangi, showing the possible probing function of the elongate toe. Elektorornis was smaller than a modern sparrow. (Zhongda Zhang / Current Biology)

(CN) – Researchers have discovered an ancient bird fossilized in amber with a toe structure unlike anything seen before in animal history.

The study documenting this discovery, published Thursday in the scientific journal Current Biology, reports that the amber fossil was found in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar in 2014. Local traders of the area became fascinated by the fossil, perplexed by the unique structure of the creature trapped within the amber. Lida Xing, co-author of the study and lecturer at China University of Geosciences, Beijing, first encountered the fossil after acquiring it from a local amber dealer.

This photograph shows a nearly 100-million-year-old bird foot featuring a very long toe preserved in amber. The specimen also contains the bird’s left wing tip. (Lida Xing)

The bird fossil, belonging to the Cretaceous period, has since undergone a series of scans and digital reconstructions, and its exact irregular structure has been further illuminated.

The bird, which researchers have dubbed the Elektorornis chenguangi, meaning amber bird, possesses an unusually long toe found within the middle of its foot. The toe stretches to 9.8 millimeters, over 40% longer than its second-longest toe and roughly a quarter longer than the bird’s back legs.

Researchers report that this structure is unlike anything they have encountered before.

“Similar digital proportions are not observed in any Mesozoic bird and, to our knowledge, are not present in any living bird,” the study states.

Researchers have cross studied this unique toe structure with other long-toed animal varieties and have arrived at some potential conclusions on how the toe functioned. Most notably, researchers examined the aye-aye, a lemur that uses its exceptionally long digits to scrap insects and nutrients out of narrow gaps found in tree trunks.

Scientists believe that the amber bird likely used its uniquely long toe for a similar purpose. They also suggest that the bird was arboreal and smaller than a sparrow, one that spent most its time around trees, furthering supporting the theory on how its toe was utilized.

The study reports that this bird belonged to the Enantiornithes bird species, an ancient bird group from the Mesozoic era, and that its species were likely wiped out by the same extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. There are no living descendants of this bird or its species in the living world today.

Xing was conducting field work at the time of this reporting and was not immediately available for comment. Jingmai O’Connor, co-author of the study, as well could not be reached for immediate comment.

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