Ninety-nine million years ago, birds and dinosaurs ruled the earth. But what did those early birds look like? That’s been hard to prove—until now. Thanks to an amazing fossil find, a bird encased in Cretaceous-era amber from Malaysia is giving researchers a new look at a mysterious species of birds that existed during the time of the dinosaurs.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen a relatively complete individual in Burmese amber,” Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and co-author of a paper that describes it, tells Smithsonian.com.
And what an individual. Though it’s less than three inches long, the bird was preserved in stunning detail. Scientists scanned the specimen, then created a 3D reconstruction to learn more about the tiny bird. They describe their find in the journal Gondwana Research.
The 99-million-year-old bird’s complete head, neck, part of one wing, and both feet were preserved, along with much of its skin, which helped the team map out the feathers and how they were attached to the tiny bird’s body. Its feathers were more like dinosaurs’ than modern birds’.
Don’t get your hopes up: Unlike in Jurassic Park, this Cretaceous-era animal won’t yield DNA that can be studied or cloned. “The DNA angle is pretty much dead at this point,” laughs McKellar. But the team hopes that clues from the keratin inside the feathers could help reveal what color the bird was during its brief life.
“These birds hatched on the ground and then made their way into trees” just days after birth, says McKellar. Once there, the spiky birds—armed with a full set of teeth and wings with claws—weren’t babied like their modern relatives. Rather, their parents would have gone AWOL, leaving them to learn for themselves. “They’re not like the fuzzy, helpless chicks you’d think of nowadays,” he says.
The hatchling may have been fierce, but it succumbed to a stream of tree resin a few weeks after being born. It’s the bird’s loss, but our gain: The team hopes that the detailed specimen will shed light into how its family—the now extinct Enantiornithes—evolved and eventually died out. That, in turn, could tell us more about how modern birds came to be. “Even a few snapshots like this really improve our understanding of what’s going on,” says McKellar.