An international team of scientists have discovered a pair of wings well-preserved in amber in northeastern Myanmar (Burma). The team says the 99 million-year-old wings belong to enantiornithine birds, a major group of birds during the Cretaceous, which died 66 million years ago, at the same time as the dinosaurs.

As reported by the study published on June 28 in the journal Nature Communications, the small fossil wings measure two to three centimetres long. Aside from feathers, the wings still retained the bones, three long fingers and sharp claws. The amber where these were found is famous of producing other well-preserved species of spiders, lizards and scorpions. However, this is the first time to find complete of parts of birds.

“These fossil wings show amazing detail,” says study researcher Mike Benton, a professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. “The individual feathers show every filament and whisker, whether they are flight feathers or down feathers, and there are even traces of color — spots and stripes.”

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The image shows achises, skin, muscle and claws. Credit: Nature

The study’s lead author Xing Lida says that the birds were small birds that were ready to leave the nest as soon as they hatched. Unfortunately, these animals were too immature and inexperienced to survive the environment.

“These birds did not hang about in the nest waiting to be fed, but set off looking for food, and sadly died perhaps because of their small size and lack of experience,” says Xing Lida. “Isolated feathers in other amber samples show that adult birds might have avoided the sticky sap, or pulled themselves free.”

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The well-preserved wings. Credit: Nature

The Burmese amber deposits provide us a glimpse of how life was during the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution. David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic that the Burmese amber contains the largest variety of animal and plant life during this period.

“About 70 percent of the Burmese amber is barren, but the other 30 percent features phenomenal biodiversity,” adds Grimaldi. “Never, ever would I have predicted this level of diversity.”

The study’s researchers include scientists from the China University of Geosciences and other collaborators from Canada, United States and United Kingdom.