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Extended digits might have helped the critter snag food in hard-to-reach places

Elektorornis chenguangi

LONGFINGER  Elektorornis chenguangi, a newly identified species of bird that lived about 99 million years ago (shown in an artist’s reconstruction), had a bizarrely long third digit on its foot. The extra-long toe may have helped in foraging for food.

Zhongda Zhang/Current Biology

There once was a little bird, smaller than a sparrow, that lived about 99 million years ago. And it had a freakishly long toe.

Researchers found the ancient bird’s right leg and foot preserved in a chunk of amber. Its third digit is 9.8 millimeters long, about 41 percent longer than its second-longest digit — and 20 percent longer than its entire lower leg. This foot morphology is unique among any known bird species, whether modern or Mesozoic, the team reports online July 11 in Current Biology. Although it’s not clear what purpose the extra-long toe served, the digit may have helped the bird find food in hard-to-reach places, such as through a hole in a tree.

The team, led by paleontologist and frequent amber-fossil finder Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, compared the toe size ratios of the fossilized bird with those of 20 other birds that lived during Mesozoic, the era that spans between 252 million and 66 million years ago, as well as with toe size ratios of 62 living species. Although some modern tree-dwelling birds do have elongated third digits, none of the other birds living or extinct have quite such a dramatic difference in toe sizes, the team found.

amber bird toe

C. Gramling. In a first, scientists spot what may be lungs in an ancient bird fossil. Science News. Vol. 194, November 10, 2018, p. 13.

M. Rosen. Dinosaur tail preserved in amber, with feathers. Science News Online, December 9, 2016.


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