This small (3-inch) piece of amber contains the fossilized remains of a baby bird that lived about 99 million years ago. CT scans reveal that it’s the most complete fossil ever found in Burmese amber. (PHOTOGRAPH BY MING BAI, CHINESE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES)

The remains of a baby bird from the time of the dinosaurs have been discovered in a specimen of 99-million-year-old amber, according to scientists writing in the journal Gondwana Research.

The hatchling belonged to a major group of birds known as enantiornithes, which went extinct along with dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago. Funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, this discovery is providing critical new information about these ancient, toothed birds and how they differed from modern birds.

This is also the most complete fossil yet to be discovered in Burmese amber. Mined in the Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, Burmese amber deposits contain possibly the largest variety of animal and plant life from the Cretaceous period, which lasted from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago.

Based on its molting pattern, researchers could determine that the bird was only in its first days or weeks of life when it was enveloped in sticky tree resin and literally frozen in time. Nearly half of the body is preserved in the three-inch sample, including its head, wings, skin, feathers and a clawed foot clearly visible to the naked eye. Its 99-million-year-old feathers range from white and brown to dark grey in color, and the researchers have nicknamed the young enantiornithine ‘Belone’, after a Burmese name for the amber-hued Oriental skylark.

The find was reported by several of the same researchers who discovered a feathered theropod dinosaur tail preserved in amber last December. The structure of the dinosaur feathers suggested that it would be incapable of flight. On the other hand, an earlier find of enantiornithine wings in amber revealed a feather structure remarkably similar to flight feathers of modern birds.

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SOURCE: National Geographic, Kristin Romey