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Credit: HAN Zhixin

Meet the smallest dinosaur ever discovered: a tiny creature dubbed 'eye-tooth bird'

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Mar 11, 2020

Dinosaurs came in all shapes and sizes, but only one of them has the honor of being called the smallest dinosaur ever discovered. That would be Oculudentavis, a super tiny and avian-like creature, whose Latin-based scientific name translates into "eye-tooth bird." Not including the beak, the thing's head is only 7mm long, writes ScienceMag.org. That's as big as your pinky nail.

The 2-gram animal from the Mesozoic era, which is described as being smaller than Cuba's Bee Hummingbird (the smallest modern-day bird, as far as we know), was discovered in northern Myanmar, encased in a piece of 99 million-year-old amber (Jurassic Park-style!). According to NBC, the remains were first found in 2016, though they only recently received an official classification.

With more teeth than any other fossilized bird yet discovered, it is believed that Oculudentavis was predatory, feasting on small insects with over 100 small chompers. That's obviously a big distinction from hummingbirds, which use their long and thin beaks to suck nectar out of flowers.

Quick, someone affix the following image to the top of a cane!

Burmese amber with Oculudentavis skull. The skull is 99 million years old, nearly perfectly preserved inside.

Despite its large eyes, the animal's pupils are not very large, suggesting that it was mainly active during the day. In addition, Oculudentavis' eyes don't point forward like those on living birds. Instead, they're located on either side of its head, something you find in modern-day lizards. That also hints at a lack of binocular vision, a deficit shared by predatory birds in today's age.

That said, "eye-tooth bird" is still unique in that researchers have theorized that the animal's eyes would have bulged out of their sockets, a visual system not used by any creature today.

“Animals that become very small have to deal with specific problems, like how to fit all sensory organs into a very small head, or how to maintain body heat,” said Dr. Jingmai O'Connor, a senior professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and a lead author on the new study. “This process — called miniaturization — commonly occurs in isolated environments, most famously islands. It is no wonder that the 99 million-year-old Burmese amber is thought to have come from an ancient island arc."

“This discovery highlights how ancient amber has the ability to provide information about organisms that are otherwise absent in the fossil record. This is particularly the case for tiny animals that lived in trees," added Dr. Luis Chiappe, senior vice president of research and collections at the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County.

A CT scan of the skull of Oculudentavis by LI Gang, Oculudentavis means eye-tooth-bird, so named for its distinctive features.

An artistic rendering of Oculudentavis by HAN Zhixin, imagining what it looked like while alive 99 million years ago

There's already a debate over whether the miniature dino was really an ancestor of modern-day birds. Since only the animal's head was inside the aforementioned amber, it becomes more difficult to provide a well-rounded taxonomy.

At this time, scientists have classified Oculudentavis as an extremely primitive bird placed between Archaeopteryx (the oldest and most primitive bird that lived 150-155 million years ago) and Jeholornis (a long, bony-tailed bird from 120 million years ago).

“It’s the weirdest fossil I’ve ever been lucky enough to study,” O’Connor continued. “I just love how natural selection ends up producing such bizarre forms. We are also super lucky this fossil survived to be discovered 99 million years later. Bivalves came very close to destroying the specimen — one of their drill holes goes right into the braincase. Just goes to show the extraordinary circumstances that all need to be just right for fossils to make it into human hands.”

Credit: HAN Zhixin

“It’s lucky this tiny creature was preserved in amber, as such small, fragile animals aren’t common in the fossil record. This finding is exciting because it gives us a picture of the small animals that lived in a tropical forest during the Age of Dinosaurs," Chiappe said. “Who knows what other small vertebrates will be found in amber in the future!” Chiappe concluded. “We have to keep searching, studying and discovering.”

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.

For more info on the discovery, click here.

Dinosaur nerds have had a lot to celebrate recently. Just last week, for example, we reported on how scientists discovered intact dinosaur DNA in a 75 million-year-old fossil.


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