Enantiornithes Chick Fossil: An insight into Prehistoric Avian Development

On the 5th of March 2018 avian fossil research led by Dr Fabien Knoll from the University of Manchester’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life (ICAL) was published in the journal of Nature Communications. This research focused on the fossil discovery of a very young Enantiornithes, a prehistoric group of bird from the Early Cretaceous. This article will explain more about this discovery and its importance for understanding ancient avian development.


After covering my recent Paleontological volunteering in my previous article I wanted this article to focus back on recent fossil discoveries, of which there have three important fossil discoveries over the past few weeks. On the 5th of March research was published by Dr Fabian Knoll and his team in the journal of Nature Communications about the fossilized analysis of a Cretaceous era Enantiornithes a prehistoric bird. Then on the 13th of March scientists published research again in Nature Communications about Archaeopteryx and its wing bone geometry, with analysis of its bones suggesting it flew like a Pheasant in short bursts of flight. Finally on the 21st of March research was published in the Royal Society Journal about Ceratopsian horns and frills, suggesting that these Dinosaurs may have used them to attract a mate and sometimes as a defence against predators rather than as a distinguishing feature between different Ceratopsid species. For the purpose of this article though I have decided to focus on just one of these studies that of the analysis of the Enantiornithes bird fossil.

What was the research?

The fossil of the  Enantiornithes chick was found in the Los Hoyas sedimentary deposit in Spain and measured less than five centimetres. Enantiornithes unlike birds of today had teeth in their beaks and claws on their wings, living 252 to 66 million years ago. “To date, 80 species have been identified, although some are disputed. They all became extinct around the time of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary – about 66 million years ago” (Masterson, 2018, p1). The research focused on the ossification and growth of bone development. The fossil was unique as the bird died not long after it had hatched,  during an important time of the bird’s development. The researchers of the study used synchrotron radiation a particle accelerator to examine the fossil in greater submicron detail, the results of which I will explain a bit later on.

The story of this fascinating study was picked up by various News and Science media websites including the BBC News, Fox News, The National Geographic, Live Science and Science News to name just a few.

Fossil Bird 2
Artist impression of Enantiornithes. Image credit: Raúl Martín, 2018 via Popular Science

What did the research find?

The research undertaken “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” (University of Manchester, 2018, p2). Even though the bird was not able fly the animal may not have been as reliant on its parents and vulnerable as most people may think. For instance modern birds today such as love birds are born naked with their eyes shut dependent on their parents, others on the other hand like chickens are independent upon birth with feathers, moving freely as soon as they hatch (Zachos, 2018).

The ossification of the bone of this fossilized bird and similar Enantiornithes suggests that their development may have been more diverse than previously thought. Though it is not known whether this bird is a new Enantiornithes species or belongs to a group already known like Concornis lacustris or lberomesornis romerali which have also been found in the Las Hoyes region in Spain (Geggel, 2018).

Bird fossil image
Phosphorous mapping image and photo of the Enantiornithes fossil. Image credit: Dr. Fabien Knoll, 2018 via ZME Science

Why is this research important for understanding avian bone development?

New technologies are helping paleontologists and scientists to breakdown bone growth and development in completely new ways enabling a completely new approach and insight into how Dinosaurs, Birds and prehistoric creatures might have developed from birth to adulthood. “Truth be told, the techniques we used to analyse it in the paper (such as synchrotron microtomography and elemental mapping) had not yet been developed when the specimen was discovered,” (Knoll, cited in Briggs 2018, p2). Gaining a better understanding into ancient avian development through research such as this analysis detailed in this article will help paleontologists and scientists gain a clearer picture of ancient bird evolution and how the developments of modern birds we have today have come about.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article! The fossil discoveries this past month have been very interesting and I am really looking forward to covering these in more detail and sharing my views on them with you all over the coming weeks.

 

References

 

Masterson A. (2018) Chicky-babe: tiny fossil carries clues to ancient bird development, [online] Cosmos: The Science of Everything, Available from: https://cosmosmagazine.com/palaeontology/chicky-babe-tiny-fossil-carries-clues-to-ancient-bird-development [Accessed 24th of March 2018]

 
The University of Manchester (2018) 127 million year old baby bird fossil sheds light on avian evolution, [online] The University of Manchester, Available from: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/127-million-year-old-baby-bird-fossil-sheds-light-on-avian-evolution/ [Accessed 24th March 2018]

 
Zachos E. (2018) Rare Baby Bird Fossil Found in Dino-Era Rock, [online] The National Geographic, Available from: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/bird-skeleton-flight-evolution-mesozoic-spd/ [Accessed 24th March 2018]

 
Geggel L. (2018) This Is One of the Tiniest Ancient Birds, and It Lived Alongside Giant Dinosaurs, [online] Live Science, Available from: https://www.livescience.com/61931-ancient-tiny-bird-fossil.html [Accessed 24th March 2018]

 
Briggs H. (2018) Baby bird fossil is ‘rarest of the rare’, [online] BBC News, Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43249509 [Accessed 24th March 2018]

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