A newly discovered fossil could help shed light on avian evolution, a recent study published in the journal Nature reports. The remains come from an ancient bird group known as Enantiornithes. The specimen in the study is 127 million years old and is one of the smallest bird skeletons on record. The species, like the dinosaurs, died off roughly 65 million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic Era.
While the group’s lineage went extinct, it is significant because it contains some of the first birds to evolve during the age of the dinosaurs. As a result, studying Enantiornithes could help researchers better understand how birds evolved over time.
An international group of researchers found the skeleton, which is the same size as a human pinky finger. As it died only a few days after being born, the chick allowed the team to gain new insights into bone development among Enantiornithes birds.
“The evolutionary diversification of birds has resulted in a wide range of hatchling developmental strategies and important differences in their growth rates,” lead author Fabien Knoll, a researcher at the University of Manchester, in a statement. “By analyzing bone development we can look at a whole host of evolutionary traits.”
Using imaging technology, the researchers were able to observe microstructures within the bones. That showed the specimen’s sternum had not yet transformed to bone from cartilage when it died. As a result, researchers gained insight into the species’ ossification and found that Enantiornithes birds had a wide range of different development patterns.
These findings are significant because they give a rare glimpse into the past. By being able to better understand how birds began, scientists could get a good idea of how modern species came about.