An early juvenile enantiornithine specimen from the Early Cretaceous of Spain

The slab and counterslab of MPCM-LH-26189

Mesozoic remains of juvenile birds are rare. To date, the only records are from the Early Cretaceous of China and Spain, from the mid-Cretaceous of  Myanmar, and from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina and Mongolia. The most recent finding from the Early Cretaceous of Las Hoyas, Spain, provide an insight into the osteogenesis of the Enantiornithes, the most abundant clade of Mesozoic birds. Previous records of Enantiornithes from the Las Hoyas fossil site include: Eoalulavis hoyasi, Concornis lacustris, and Iberomesornis romerali.

The latest specimen, MPCM-LH-26189, a nearly complete and largely articulated skeleton (only the feet, most of its hands, and the tip of the tail are missing), is very small. The specimen died around the time of birth, a crucial moment to study the osteogenesis in birds. The skull, is partially crushed, and is large compared to the body size. The braincase is fractured. The frontals and the parietals form a uniformly curved cranial vault. The cerebrocast shows a very slight inflation, suggesting that the cerebral anatomy of MPCM-LH-26189 falls in between that of the Archaeopteryx, and the putative basal ornithurine Cerebavis, whose telencephalic expansion is close to most extant birds. The cervical series is composed of 9 vertebrae. There are 10  thoracic vertebrae, and the sacrum appears to be composed of 5–6 vertebrae. The prezygapophyses of the mid-thoracic vertebrae extend beyond the cranial articular surface. The thoracic ribs are joint to the thoracic vertebrae. The two coracoids, the furcula, and three sternal ossifications are preserved. The furcula is Y-shapped. Both humeri, ulnae, and radii are also preserved.

Reconstruction of MPCM-LH-26189 by Raúl Martín

The osteohistological analysis of the left humerus shows a dense pattern of longitudinal grooves. Those grooves correspond to primary cavities, which open onto the surface of the cortex in young and fast-growing bone. The shaft of the tibia and radius show very-thin cortices. In addition,  the primary nature of the vascularisation, the round shape of the osteocytes lacunae and the uneven peripheral margin of the medullary cavity (with no endosteal bone), strongly suggests that the bone was actively growing when the bird died.

Enantiornithines show a mosaic of characters, reflecting their intermediate phylogenetic position between the basal-pygostylians and modern bird. In this clade, the sternum adopts an elaborate morphology, and in adult Enantiornithes, no more than eight free caudal vertebrae precede the pygostyle. The differences observed in the ossification of the sternum and the number of free caudal vertebrae in MPCM-LH-26189, when it compared to other juvenile enantiornithines, reveal a clade-wide asynchrony in the sequence of ossification of the sternum and tail, suggesting that the developmental strategies of these basal birds may have been more diverse than previously thought.

References:

Fabien Knoll, et al., “A diminutive perinate European Enantiornithes reveals an asynchronous ossification pattern in early birds,” Nature Communications, volume 9, Article number: 937 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03295-9

Chiappe, L. M., Ji, S. & Ji, Q. Juvenile birds from the Early Cretaceous of China: implications for enantiornithine ontogeny. Am. Mus. Novit. 3594, 1–46 (2007).

 

 

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A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine frozen in time

Overview of HPG-15-1 in right lateral view. (From Xing et al., 2017)

Overview of HPG-15-1 in right lateral view. (From Xing et al., 2017)

Amber from the Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, called Burmese amber, has been commercially exploited for millennia. Of the seven major deposits of amber from the Cretaceous Period, Burmese amber has probably the most diverse paleobiota, including the tail of a non-avian coelurosaurian theropod, and three juvenile enantiornithine birds. The third specimen, HPG-15-1, is the most complete fossil bird discovered in Burmese amber. It comes from the Angbamo site, and measures approximately 86 mm x 30 mm x 57 mm, and weighs 78 g. It  was encapsulated during the earliest stages of its feather production, and  plumage preserves an unusual combination of precocial and altricial features unlike any living hatchling bird.

 Details of the head in HPG-15-1. A, x-ray µCT reconstruction in left lateral view

Details of the head in HPG-15-1. A, x-ray µCT reconstruction in left lateral view (From Xing et al., 2017)

The skull was split when the amber was cut. The rostrum is preserved in one section and the neck and most of the braincase in the other. The skull is mesorostrine. A  single tooth is visible in the left premaxilla. As in Early Cretaceous enantiornithines, the premaxillary corpus is short, forming approximately one-third of the rostrum. The exoccipitals contributed to the dorsal portion of the condyle and were unfused at the time of death. The frontals articulate for most of their length with a small gap between their rostral ends as in Archaeopteryx.  The inner ear and its semicircular canals are preserved. There are at least six articulated cervical vertebrae, including the atlas and axis, preserved in articulation with the skull. The post-axial vertebrae are rectangular with large neural canals, low and caudally displaced neural spines, and a ventral keel as in many enantiornithines. The articulated skull and series of cervical vertebrae bear plumage in dense fields. The individual feathers  are dark brown in color, and appear to consist of tufts of four or more barbs. Skin is preserved as a translucent film in unfeathered regions of both the head and neck.

Microstructure and pigmentation of feathers on wing and body of HPG-15-1. Scale bars equal 1 mm in (A, C); 0.5 mm in (B, D). From Xing et al., 2017

The new specimen also preserves a partial distal wing, the distal right tibiotarsus and complete right foot as well as part of the left pes. Both skeletal material and integumentary structures from the wing’s apex are well-preserved. The plumage consists of fragments of some of the primaries, and alula feathers, some of the secondaries and coverts, and traces of contours from the wing base. The hind limbs preserve feathers and traces of skin. The absence of fusion between the tarsals indicates that the specimen is ontogenetically immature. The proportions of the pedal digits suggest an arboreal lifestyle. Plumage within the femoral and crural tracts consists of neoptile feathers with a short or absent rachis. These feathers are nearly transparent, suggesting that they were pale or white. The skin beneath the crural tract is thin and smooth. The tip of the tail clearly preserves the remains of a single large sheathed rectrix.

The slow post-natal growth results in a protracted period of vulnerability, which is reflected in the Enantiornithes by the large number of juveniles found in the fossil record, whereas young juveniles of other Cretaceous bird lineages are unknown.

 

References:

Lida Xing, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Ryan C. McKellar, Luis M. Chiappe, Kuowei Tseng, Gang Li, Ming Bai , A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine (Aves) hatchling preserved in Burmese amber with unusual plumage, (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.gr.2017.06.001