Nature never ceases to amaze: For its latest trick, researchers discovered a 99-million-year-old bird with toes longer than its lower legs.
"It shows that ancient birds were way more diverse than we thought", said Xing.
Co-author Jingmai O'Connor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "Elongated toes are something you commonly see in arboreal animals because they need to be able to grip these branches and wrap their toes around them".
Daniel Field, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, said: "The freaky proportions of the foot of Elektorornis emphasises how unpredictable the evolutionary history of birds has been". It was named Elektorornis chenguangy and the first word in the name can be translated as an amber bird. But that abruptly changed when a huge asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago. "But this extreme difference in toe lengths, as far as we know, has never been seen before". During the Mesozoic era, the valley was full of trees that produced resin, a gooey substance that oozes out of the tree bark.
Small animals like geckos and spiders, and plants, often get trapped in the resin and become fossilised in the amber after millions of years.
Xing obtained the amber from a local amber trader, who didn't know what animal this weird foot belonged to.
"I was very surprised at the time", Dr. Xing told NYT, recalling that the fossil was "undoubtedly the claw of a bird".
Along with its unusually long toes, the bird is thought to have sported teeth, and claws on its wings, and it may havehad primitive feathers.
Paleontologists are unsure what objective the extra-long toe served, but it may have helped the cretaceous period bird find food in difficult-to-reach places such as holes in trees.
It remains unknown why the amber bird evolved such an unusual feature.
The only known animal with disproportionally long digits, in fact, is the aye-aye, a lemur that uses its fingers not so much for balance, but for foraging in hard-to-reach places, like tree trunks that house juicy larvae and insects. It is believed that Elektorornis may have used its elongated toes for the same objective.
"This is the best guess we have", O'Connor said. "There is no bird with a similar morphology that could be considered a modern analog for this fossil bird". "A lot of ancient birds were probably doing completely different things that living birds".
Moving forward, researchers hopes to extract proteins and pigments from exposed features peeking out from the amber.
This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Geographic Society, USA, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
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