A tiny fossilized prehistoric chick has shed light on birds during the age of the dinosaurs, a new study has revealed.
The 127-million-year-old chick dates back to the Mesozoic Era from 250 to 65 million years ago and belonged to a group of prehistoric birds called Enantiornithes.
Measuring less than 5 cm, smaller than the average little finger, it would have weighed just three ounces when it was alive.
The nearly complete skeleton was amongst the smallest known Mesozoic avian fossils ever discovered.
But what made this fossil so important and unique was the fact it died not long after its birth at a critical stage in a bird’s skeletal formation.
That meant this bird’s extremely short life has given researchers a rare chance to analyze the species’ bone structure and development.
Co-author Luis Chiappe, Director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles said: “This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs.
“It is amazing to realize how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.”
Honorary Senior Research Fellow Dr. Fabien Knoll from the University of Manchester explained studying ossification, the process of bone development can explain a lot about a young bird’s life.
It can highlight whether it could fly, or if it needed to stay with its parents after hatching or could survive on its own.
With the fossil being so small the team used synchrotron radiation to picture the tiny specimen at a ‘submicron’ level, observing the bones’ microstructures in extreme detail.
Dr. Knoll added: “New technologies are offering palaeontologists unprecedented capacities to investigate provocative fossils.
“Here we made the most of state-of-the-art facilities worldwide including three different synchrotrons in France, the UK, and the United States.”
The researchers found the baby bird’s sternum (breastplate bone) was still largely made of cartilage and had not yet developed into hard, solid bone when it died, meaning it wouldn’t have been able to fly.
The team say that its lack of bone development doesn’t necessarily mean the hatchling was over reliant on its parents for care and feeding, a trait known as being ‘altricial’.
Modern day species like love birds are highly dependent on their parents when born.
Others, like chickens, are highly independent, which is known as ‘precocial’.
This is not a black-and-white issue, however, but rather a spectrum, hence the difficulty in clarifying the developmental strategies of long-gone bird species.
The study was published in the journal “Nature Communications.”
Video credit: SWNS