Ancient bird wings perfectly preserved in amber

By Costa Maragos Posted: June 28, 2016 4:00 p.m.

The research team discovered samples of amber that contained the preserved wings of birds that lived 99 million years ago.
The research team discovered samples of amber that contained the preserved wings of birds that lived 99 million years ago. Courtesy of Ryan McKellar

About 99 million years ago, two hummingbird-sized birds encountered a sticky patch of tree resin in a forest somewhere in Asia.

It was a fatal mistake.

The evidence shows that one of the birds desperately tried to free itself, but ultimately died on the spot. We know this because the feathers became mummified in a lump of amber, and remained perfectly preserved alongside claw marks from the struggle.

That tiny piece of amber is causing a huge stir around the world today as more details come to light as to what those birds looked like millions of years ago.

Amber Bird
This illustration shows a life-sized reconstruction of the bird and the size of an amber sample  that contained a trapped wing. (Shenna Wang)

The research study, published by Nature Communications, was co-authored by Dr. Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina and adjunct professor of Biology at the University of Regina.

“It was a huge thrill to see such tiny specimens with this degree of preservation,” says McKellar. “This project was an exciting and fast-paced experience, and I feel lucky to have been included in the team. Although we are only dealing with the tips of wings and some sheets of skin in the amber samples, these specimens are as close as anyone has ever gotten to seeing the group 'in the flesh.’ ”

The fossil specimens were discovered at a site in the Kachin Province of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The amber shows with incredible detail 100-million-year-old wings with the clear features of bones, tissue muscles and feathers.

“It also provides direct visual evidence that the wings were dark brown with a pale spot and band on their upper surface, and a pale or white underside,” says McKellar.

It’s most likely the birds belonged to the enantiornithes, primitive, toothed birds that became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period.

Previous samples lacked the detail and clarity of what McKellar got to see up close.   

“It’s an amazing discovery. Having had the opportunity to see this up close was an eye opening experience for all of us on the research team,” says McKellar, who was asked to join the research by Dr. Lida Xing from the School of the Earth Sciences and Resources, China University of Geosciences in Beijing.

McKellar did research in this area while working on his PhD at the University of Alberta. Much of the work on the amber samples took place on site at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

dr ryan biology
Ryan McKellar and Lida Xing examine the  amber samples containing wings from birds that lived 99 million years ago. (Photo courtesy of Ryan McKellar - Royal Saskatchewan Museum)
“The Royal Saskatchewan Museum has an ideal set of facilities for a project such as this,” says McKellar. “Our digital imaging station allows us to create high-magnification images where everything is in focus, while the microscope and camera options at the RSM are flexible enough to allow us to apply a wide range of lighting techniques to samples.”

“As part of this project, I helped to study the feathers preserved on the Burmese amber wings, and validated the amber samples. This complimented the work done by researchers in China, the U.S.A., and the U.K., that focused on the osteology of the wings, which was reconstructed using Synchrotron X-ray micro-CT.”

The samples observed by McKellar and the research team are now opening up new opportunities in the study of ancient birds.

“The work confirms that hummingbird-sized hatchlings belonging to the group already possessed a full set of flight feathers, with no signs of a downy juvenile stage,” says McKellar.

Ultimately, the amber samples provide a new avenue for studying this group of birds and the evolution of feathers, and they fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge that are difficult to address with compression fossils, preserved in sedimentary rocks.”

The research was funded in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Geographic Society and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.