File photo of an artist reconstruction of Elektorornis chenguangi .
Researchers discovered a bird foot 99 million years ago that had an oversized third toe. This is the first time that such a foot structure has been observed in extinct or live birds.
The study published in the journal Current Biology suggested that this bird used its toes to hook feed from tree trunks.
"I was very surprised when I saw the amber, which shows that old birds were much more diverse than we thought, and they had many different characteristics to adapt to their environment," said lead author Lida Xing Bei der Investigating the Cretaceous fossil, Mr. Xing and his colleagues scanned the amber with a micro-CT and created a 3D reconstruction of the foot. They found that the bird's third toe, at 9.8 millimeters, is 41
The researchers called him Elektorornis chenguangi . Elektorornis means "amber bird" and belongs to a group of extinct birds called Enantiornithes, the most common bird species known from the Mesozoic era. Enantiornithins, together with dinosaurs, are believed to have died out during the extinction of the Cretaceous Paleogene about 66 million years ago. They have no live offspring.
Based on the fossil, the team estimated that the Elektorornis was smaller than a sparrow and was tree-covered, which meant that he spent most of his time in trees rather than trees on the ground or in the water ,
"Oblong toes are something you often see in tree-dwelling animals because they need to grip those branches and wrap around them with their toes, but this extreme difference in toe-length, as far as we know," The amber in which the foot was found, measures 3.5 inches and weighs 5.5 grams. It was discovered around 2014 in the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar. "] During the Mesozoic, the valley was full of trees that produced resin, a sticky substance that seeped out of the tree bark, and plants and small animals like geckos and spiders often stick in the resin and fossilize with amber after millions of years Scientists have discovered many extinct animals, including the oldest known bee and a feathered amber dinosaur tail from this valley.
Mr. Xing obtained the amber from a local amber merchant who did not know which animal owned this weird foot.
"Some traders thought it was a lizard's foot because lizards tend to have long toes. Although I've never seen a bird claw that looks like this, I know it's a bird. Like most birds, this foot has four toes, while lizards have five, "said Mr. Xing.
It remains unknown why the amber bird has developed such an unusual trait: the only known animal with disproportionately long digits is the aye-aye The aye-aye is a maki that uses its long middle fingers to fish larvae and insects from tree trunks to obtain food, so the researchers suggest that Elektorornis used his toe for the same purpose.  "This is the best guess we have. There is no bird with a similar morphology that could be considered a modern analogue. Many ancient birds have probably done very different things than live birds. This fossil reveals another ecological niche in which these early birds experimented as they evolved, "said Jingmai O. Connor.
The team hopes the proteins and pigments from some feathers on the surface of the amber Mr. Xing said such data could help them better understand the bird's adaptation to the environment, such as whether he had a camouflage plumage.
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