An update on the tiny dino-bird I described yesterday

Yesterday I wrote about the discovery, published in Nature, of a very small theropod dinosaur that appeared to be part of the radiation of early birdlike dinos. It was tiny and had features so unusual that it couldn’t really be placed in a phylogeny. The creature was named Oculudentavis khaungraae and was remarkably well preserved (well, just the head) in Burmese amber dated at 99 million years ago.

I’d like to issue an addendum after reading Daren Naish‘s post on his well -known website Tetrapod Zoology (h/t Dom). As Naish is a vertebrate paleontologist, he knows a ton more than I about this stuff, and in fact is able to evaluate its phylogenetic position. You can read his post by clicking on the screenshot below:

There are two issues raised by Daren. The first is whether this really is a feathered, avian-like theropod. The second is the ethicality of using specimens from Burmese amber. We’ll take the science first, with quotes from Naish’s piece indented.

After consulting with various experts in the field, Naish says this:

. . . . a number of experts whose opinions I respect have expressed doubts about the claimed theropod status of the fossil discussed below and have argued that it is more likely a non-dinosaurian reptile, perhaps a drepanosaur or lepidosaur (and maybe even a lizard).

That might explain why some of the fossil’s features, like the bulging of the eyes from the head, are more lizard-like than theropod like.  Here’s one reconstruction of the creature by Mette Aumala, reproduced by Nash (I’ve also obtained permission to use it):

The Tetrapod Zoology piece has several drawings and reconstructions of the creature by Naish, and you can see them there.

Naish adds this:

At the time of writing, this proposed non-dinosaurian status looks likely and a team of Chinese authors, led by Wang Wei, have just released an article arguing for non-dinosaurian status. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but let’s see.

If it’s not a theropod, and not a feathered relative of early birds, this would markedly change its evolutionary significance. It wouldn’t make the fossil insignificant, but would divert us onto a track about the possibility of a bunch of miniature reptiles (and maybe amphibians) that we don’t know about because they’re too small and fragile to be preserved.

If it is a theropod, Naish is excited by the possibility that many early birds may have been as tiny as this creature (Naish estimates it as about 9 cm long, or about 3.5 inches).  Finally, if it was a theropod/bird, Naish speculates, following the authors, that it could have foraged for invertebrates on the forest floor, or even on “tiny vertebrates, like a dinosaurian shrew.”

At any rate, after reading Naish’s article we need to step back and not decide, prematurely, that this was an early avian creature or even a descendant of theropod dinosaurs. The mainstream press, unwilling to investigate as deeply as Naish, missed the possibility that this may be not a theropod but possibly even a non-dinosaurian reptile.

Second, there’s the issue of the amber. Naish gives three links to articles about why studying specimens from Burmese amber might be illegal (one of the links goes to a paywalled New Scientist article, but the other two are below).  The issues are these:

1.) Much of the recent informative, specimen-containing amber has been smuggled out of Myanmar illegally into China, depriving Myanmar of its paleontological heritage.

2.) The Burmese military and paramilitary could derive funds from these sales, so the money could be use to fund their wars against ethnic minorities like the Rohingya or Kachin.

3.) The workers aren’t treated particularly well (for example, if there’s an accident, they have to pay for their own healthcare).

4.) The fossils may remain in private hands, like those of Chinese collectors, and thus aren’t available for other scientists to study. Some journals won’t public analyses of specimens that aren’t available to other scientists (see video below).

5.) Finally, not an ethical issue but a scientific one. Many of these specimens simply can’t be accurately dated because they’re dug out of the ground in areas off limits to those who could provide dates.  The specimen used in the Nature paper was dated at 99 million years old, but that’s based on locality information, not on dating the amber itself or the surrounding strata. And the locality information may be dubious as well. Accurate dating is of course essential to place the fossil in its evolutionary context.

Here are two links about the ethicality of describing specimens from Burmese amber; they are given by Daren, and I give two short extracts and the links:

From the New York Times:

But much of the fossil-rich amber is mined in Myanmar, a country recently ordered by the United Nations International Court of Justice to protect its Rohingya Muslim minority against genocidal acts. The mining and sale of the amber may also be a source of profit for the country’s military. A report published last year in Science Magazine detailed how the amber is mined in a state where Myanmar’s military has long fought another ethnic minority, the Kachin, and how amber gets smuggled into China, where it can fetch high prices, potentially fueling that conflict.

These concerns are leading more scientists, especially in Western countries, to shun the use of this amber in paleontological research.

“Ever since the Rohingya crisis, I’ve boycotted the purchase of Burmese amber, and have urged amber colleagues to do the same,” said David Grimaldi, a paleontologist and the curator of amber specimens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

From Science:(article noted above; long and worth reading):

But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist’s dream, it’s also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar, where scientists can’t inspect the geology for clues to the fossils’ age and environment. In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. “These commodities are fueling the conflict,” says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. “They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources.”

Here’s a really nice Science video from last May on the general issue of specimens in amber, what knowledge we’ve derived from them, and the ethical problems of studying Burmese amber.

 

 

27 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Sub

  3. Posted March 13, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    If scientists refusing to use the material doesn’t stop the mining, but just means that it ends up with private Chinese collectors, then I don’t see that boycotting it is sensible.

    PS, typos: “Some journals won’t public …”: “publish”?

    “The specimen used in the Nature paper was dated at 99 years old …” omits the “million”.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      It depends on how you look at it. People that do boycott it get the satisfaction of not supporting the strife and sordid working conditions associated with the mining of the amber.

  4. RGT
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    The link to Daren Naish‘s website doesn’t work.
    Shows:
    en.wikipedia.’s server IP address could not be found

    • David Marjanović
      Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Of course Tetrapod Zoology isn’t on Wikipedia! It’s tetzoo.com; the article in question is here.

      And it’s Darren with rr; not pronounced the same as “darin'” in England.

  5. rickflick
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    A bird or not a bird. That is the question. Regardless, it is a fascinating creature. It would be nice if Mynmar would declare the mining area a national park of some kind, and open it for scientific research. I’m sure the country could make it a financial success while preserving the knowledge for all of mankind.

  6. EdwardM
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a good example of how science works. The dispute is a feature, not a bug, of the only way of knowing we’ve developed that actually works. I wish more thought that way.

  7. Bill Shipley
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I would love to get more details about this alternative hypothesis. Is this person arguing that this could be a non-dinosaur reptile but with feathers, wings etc.? Or is he saying that this animal did not have feathers, wings etc.? If the first, then this puts into serious doubt the idea that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs (a big change!). Or, maybe, that an entirely separate group of “bird-like” animals evolved from non-dinosaur ancestors (an even bigger change!).

    • Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      There is no certainty whether Oculudentavis had feathers. The only thing we have, is the head – and there are no feathers on it. However, there is something that looks like scales (see figure 10 in this article: http://ivpp.cas.cn/kxcb/kpdt/202003/t20200313_5514594.html), which suggests (although not proves) that the animal might have been scaly (like a lizard) rather than feathered.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      No, neither feathers or wings were included in the find. At least, feathers have not been claimed or confirmed. The find includes only the skull, so no limbs. If good evidence of feathers is discovered that would indeed change the balance of evidence in favor of dinosaur / bird.

      The original paper is arguing for dinosaur / bird because the skull has some features similar to birds. But the original paper also describes that there are features that do not resemble known dinosaurs or birds.

      • loren russell
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        I think the lepidosaur hypothesis is correct, and that this is likely to be a failure of the peer review process — the bird-like features are largely habitus — narrow, pointed rostrum, domed cranium, large eyes. That probably narrowed the focus of the authors, but surely the large number of lepidosaur traits — picked out by several on-line paleontologists — should have been spotted and commented on by reviewers before publication in Nature.

  8. EdwardM
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Just want to point out that #3 in the reasons not to use Burmese amber; “..if there’s an accident, they (the workers) have to pay for their own healthcare”, isn’t much different than millions of American workers, many of whom stand to lose their homes and savings if they so much as dare to get sick, much less have an accident.

    Maybe we should be boycotting some American products?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I noted that the US is unique among industrialized (and not so industrialized) countries in that it has no mandatory paid sick leave, although some states have it. And some companies do pay sick leave on a voluntary basis.
      However, according to Mr McConnell paid sick leave is ideological (and indeed it probably is, but not an ideology reflecting well on the US).
      I must say, I was shocked to learn that, and the same goes for maternity leave.

      • Posted March 14, 2020 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        And now paid sick leave may be a matter of life and death.

  9. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    The wild collection of important* fossils, without proper stratigraphic and taphonomic documentation can be compared to robbing graves.
    Immeasurable damage is done, knowledge lost, just for some bucks.
    Disheartening.

    *Who is going to decide which fossils are important? I’d say that these well preserved ones, especially if from rare species, would be important. Most would agree there, I guess, but here is a slippery slope, if anything.

  10. Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    It makes you feel like slapping a few faces and yelling “what the hell are you doing” lets do this scientifically… please, then again touching faces, even your own, is not a good idea these days. 😁
    100 feet down a hole? No thanks.
    Fossil aside, this was an interesting post of ethics and science.

  11. Raskos
    Posted March 13, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    The specimen used in the Nature paper was dated at 99 years old…

    Off by a few orders of magnitude here, I’d say.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I guess that would be 99 million years ago, which would put it in the Cenomanian: early Late Cretaceous.

      • loren russell
        Posted March 13, 2020 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        The 99 mya/Cenomanian dating for the Burmese amber is based on radiometric data, and seems reasonable for much of the quite archaic entomofauna. I gather that much of this amber is in situ, whereas Baltic and Canadian ambers, at least, tend to be reworked in beach or alluvial deposits. There are also late Cretaceous ambers [ca. 70mya] elsewhere in Burma/Myanmar with recognizably more modern entomofauna.

        • Raskos
          Posted March 13, 2020 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

          The source for the Cretaceous Canadian amber (at least the Cedar Lake alluvial stuff) has been found. Years ago, actually – I know the guy who first worked on it.

  12. Posted March 14, 2020 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    A wide gamut (1656 taxa) online phylogenetic analysis nests Oculudentavis as a late surviving member of the Fenestrasauria (Peters 2000), a sister to Cosesaurus (Middle Triassic, Ellenberger and DeVillalta 1974), which was also originally considered bird-like, until nested as a pterosaur precursor. Peters 2007 nested Fenestrasauria within a new clade of Lepidosauria with Huehuecuetzpalli at its base. Details online here: https://pterosaurheresies.wordpress.com/2020/03/14/oculudentavis-first-3d-skull-of-pterosaur-precursor-discovered-with-skin/ and here: https://pterosaurheresies.wordpress.com/2020/03/12/oculudentavis-not-a-tiny-bird-or-dinosaur-its-a-tiny-cosesaur-lepidosaur/

  13. David Marjanović
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    1) A discussion of the Wei et al. article on the crow dragon, with links to more, is here.

    2) Darren Naish’s blog Tetrapod Zoology is not at “en.wikipedia.”, of course, but at tetzoo.com; the article in question is here.

    3) Amber is resin. It cannot be dated directly if it’s older than maybe 60,000 years; all the C-14 in it decayed 99 million years ago. As usual, only the rock surrounding it can be dated, and probably not directly but only by correlation either.

  14. David Marjanović
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    1) A discussion of the Wei et al. article on the crow dragon, with links to more, is here.

  15. David Marjanović
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    2) Darren Naish’s blog Tetrapod Zoology is not at “en.wikipedia.”, of course, but at tetzoo.com; the article in question is here.

    3) Amber is resin. It cannot be dated directly if it’s older than maybe 60,000 years; all the C-14 in it decayed 99 million years ago. As usual, only the rock surrounding it can be dated, and probably not directly but only by correlation either.

  16. David Marjanović
    Posted March 15, 2020 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Amber is resin. It cannot be dated directly if it’s older than maybe 60,000 years; all the C-14 in it decayed 99 million years ago. As usual, only the rock surrounding it can be dated, and probably not directly but only by correlation either.

  17. Posted March 16, 2020 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    I can recommend following Daren on twitter etc…


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