Scientists Uncover Fossilized Bird With Strangely Long Toes

The 99-million-year-old bird foot featuring a very long toe preserved in amber

The 99-million-year-old bird foot featuring a very long toe preserved in amber

It's also extremely interesting to note that Xing's team compared the toe size ratios with other known birds starting from the Mesozoic era, which began 252 million years ago.

Scientists discovered a fossilized bird with strangely long toes preserved in amber.

The mystery bird is now named Elektorornis chenguangi, with "elektorornis" meaning "amber bird". Sabine Galvis of Science likens the proportions to "having a toe as long as your shin". But lizards have five toes, suggesting the sample belonged to a bird instead.

"Some traders thought it's a lizard foot, because lizards tend to have long toes", says Xing, who was contacted about the specimen by a private museum curator.

"I was very surprised when I saw the amber", Xing says.

Enantiornithes were wiped out along with the non-avian dinosaurs, while Neornithes went on to become the diverse group of birds - from ostriches to penguins, eagles to hummingbirds - that now inhabits our planet. The model was compared with 20 other extinct bird species and 62 extant ones to fully establish its unique form. "They had evolved many different features to adapt to their environments".

Based on the measurements they've taken of the fossils, the team reports that Elektorornis was smaller than a sparrow and that it was arboreal (i.e.it liked trees as opposed to the ground or water surfaces).

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"Although I've never seen a bird claw that looks like this before, I know it's a bird".

(Elektorornis means "amber bird", and the second half of the name is a nod to the discoverer of the fossil, Chen Guang.) Lengthy toes are a common feature of tree-dwelling animals like squirrels and monkeys because they improve branch grip. Past year another team of scientists found the remains of an ancient proto-spider encased in amber. Its foot also sported an unusual layer of bristled feathers, "unlike any adult bird known today", according to Jingmai O'Connor, a co-author and paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. Xing's team speculated that E. chenguangi may have used the long, sensitive digit to probe cracks in trees for insects and grubs, just as the aye-aye lemur uses a slim finger to extract food in modern Madagascar. The team believes Elektorornis may have used its toe for the same objective.

Amber is the ancient wonder substance that's brought us a glorious millipede, a spider with a tail, dinosaur-biting ticks and, now, a freaky bird with toes longer than its lower legs.

"Enantiornithines were good enough to survive and dominate in the Cretaceous but maybe not good enough to make it through the mass extinction", O'Connor said. "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.

The article, originally titled, "Bird with unusually long toes found fossilized in amber" was first published on Science Daily.

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