127-million-year-old fossil of smallest ancient baby bird sheds new light on avian evolution

Representational image of a bird Pixabay

A team of researchers at the University of Manchester and Los Angeles Museum of Natural History has discovered fossils of a little bird which was less than the size of our little finger. The tiny bird might have lived on the earth 127-million-years ago, and the new discovery is expected to give a new insight into the early days of avian evolution, including how the first birds on earth came to live alongside dinosaurs millions of years ago.

The tiny bird falls in a group of prehistoric birds called Enantiornithes. The species might have disappeared at the end of the Mesozoic Era, possibly some 65 million years ago. According to the researchers, the bird which flew in the skies during the dinosaur era would've been less than five centimeters in length, and its weight would have been almost 8.5 grams. The study report about this new discovery is published in Journal Nature.

"The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates. By analyzing bone development we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits," said Fabien Knoll, a researcher at the University of Manchester, reports the University of Manchester website.

Interestingly, the palaeontologists have successfully recovered almost the full skeleton of the fossil, and it has given the researchers an opportunity to learn the bone structure of the tiny bird deeply. During the research, scientists made use of an imaging technology called synchrotron radiation to observe the bird bones' microstructures.

"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," added Fabien Knoll.

Upon analyzing the bone structures of the bird, the researchers came to the conclusion that the bird had died shortly after it hatched. The researchers noted that the bird's sternum was largely made of cartilage and it had not yet developed into hard, solid bone when it died. It indicates that the bird was not able to fly during the time of its death.

"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," said Luis Chiappe, a researcher at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and the co-author of the study.