Bird wings in amber

Lida Xing and Ryan McKellar headed a team who just found the most gorgeous Cretaceous-era juvenile bird wings trapped in amber from Burma (Myanmar).

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The ‘Angel Wing’ fossil. Image by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Stunning, right? It’s the first time feathers in amber have been found with bones attached, so we don’t have to guess (as much) about the species. These belonged to enantiornithines – the kind with teeth, and claws on their wings – not the kind of Mesozoic birds that evolved into modern birds.

 

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See the claw top right, and the pale spot in the feathers on the left? Image by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum
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UV light lets the original flow of tree sap be mapped. Image by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the bird wings had been torn off the rest of the body, and the broken end was encased in amber, so maybe the bird had already been killed and dismembered by a predator.

Amber from Myanmar is much older than the other amber deposits that are commercially mined, and the different insects and other creatures found in it are more diverse than inclusions found anywhere else in the world. But the Burmese amber trade is basically unregulated, so most of the amber is used for carvings and jewellery, and historically palaeontologists didn’t get to see the ‘ruined’ parts which got thrown away by carvers.

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105-million-year-old cockroach in Burmese amber

The thing is, a lot of the jewellery is kind of . . . underwhelming? Naff, even? Which is so disappointing, because who doesn’t want to own Cretaceous tree sap!?

 

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Gnats preserved in Burmese amber, in a brooch design I basically owned a replica of when I was eleven and thought it was beyond cool. 

I don’t know if it’s the real thing or not, but you can even buy a carved skull of Burmese amber for US$55 on AliExpress. (Actually, if I trusted it was the real thing I would already have bought one.)

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It’s such an exciting time. Thirty years ago we thought we would never know things like what color dinosaurs were, and now we’re uncovering new information every week.

There’s an awesome slideshow of more wing images, and the dig site in Burma, on the LiveScience website here.

 

 

 

 

 

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