Complete Skull of the Smallest Known Dinosaur Found Preserved in Amber

Katie Ramirez
March 13, 2020

The skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae was found in a globule of amber in Myanmar, offering researchers a startlingly clear view of its features. When Xing, a researcher from China University of Geosciences in Beijing, first laid eyes on the fossil, he couldn't tell what it was because of the detritus trapped in the amber.

Oculudentavis also featured an exceptionally large eye socket, one comparable to lizards. In most birds, the individual bones, called scleral ossicles, are simple and fairly square.

O. khaungraae likely weighed less than an ounce and is believed to be on par with the smallest bird alive today, the bee hummingbird, which resides only in Cuba. Mysteriously, the bird's eyes only look out from the sides, meaning it wouldn't have been able to see straight ahead without turning its neck.

The bones of the eye would have formed a cone, like the eye bones in owls.

Because the new specimen consists of only a skull, understanding how it is related to birds is unclear. The large number of teeth indicates that Oculudentavis was a predator, the paper said.

"We think it's a bird".

Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs roughly 150 million years ago.

Skull of smallest-known bird embedded in 99-million-year-old amber

The Mesozoic Era was the age of the dinosaurs.

Xing added, "In fact, it has some characteristics that do not belong to birds or even dinosaurs". Oculudentavis illustrates the almost-incomprehensible size difference among members of the dinosaur lineage, contrasting to contemporaneous South American long-necked, pillar-legged dinosaur Argentinosaurus at perhaps 90 tons and 35 metres.

"To us, the paleontologists, birds are dinosaurs".

The piece of amber, just 31 x 20 x 8.5 mm, containing the skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae came from the Angbamo site near Tanai in the Hukawng valley of Myanmar's Kachin province. CT scans of the amber have also revealed the specimen could have some preserved soft tissue inside, possibly remnants of the tongue. Some features of the skull are like those of dinosaurs, while others are like those of very advanced birds. As a result, like these two groups, Oculudentavis was very likely to have a long tail, like that in non-avian dinosaurs. "You can see this attractive, tiny bird skull preserved within this piece of amber", O'Connor, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a separate interview with British news agency SWNS.

Oculudentavis' full name is "Oculudentavis khaungraae", the second part a loving reference to Mrs. Khaung Ra, who made the find available for study by donating it to the Hupoge Amber Museum. McKellar helped with the interpretation of how the specimen was preserved in amber in the research. What's really rare is finding a vertebrate animal preserved in such a fashion - to say nothing of a dinosaur.

"Amber gives us nearly the only opportunity, to learn about tiny vertebrates from the dinosaur age".

McKellar said, "The specimen is important because it represents a size class that we have probably been overlooking in other fossil deposits, simply because the animals are too small to preserve as identifiable fossils".

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