Xing Lida has seen plenty of fossils, but he can’t believe that what he’s looking at now is real. He peers through the amber to get a closer look at the ancient creature encapsulated by the once-sticky, now-hardened substance. Soon enough, he’ll come to believe that he’s genuinely holding the world’s smallest – and, perhaps, strangest-looking – dinosaur yet discovered in his hands.
It was nothing new for Xing to examine fossils, including those preserved for centuries in amber. According to a 2019 piece in Science magazine, the paleontologist had perused the many amber-encased fossils at a market in Tengchong, China. More daringly, he had once sneaked over the border into Myanmar to see for himself from whence the incredible remnants had come.
And yet, despite his familiarity with these types of ancient artifacts, this particular minute, amber-encased fossil had still shocked Xing. He wanted an even closer view of the strange-looking creature trapped inside, so having purchased the example, he sent it off to an X-ray facility in Shanghai. There, high-powered machinery could reveal features with a microscopic level of detail.
What the X-ray revealed about the dinosaur was even more incredible than what met the eye. Indeed, it might seem that a creature the size of a thumbnail would prove to be one of the cuter relics of the distant past. But this one – now the smallest dinosaur known to man – actually proved to be much less adorable than you might think.
One hundred million years ago, the landscape of modern-day Myanmar looked very different to the way it does today. Towering forests gave shelter to a strange array of creatures, their calls ringing out over an otherwise silent planet. But danger lingered below, all thanks to the trees that hung overhead.
Sometimes, insects would launch concerted attacks upon the structure of a tree. Or, a storm would roll through that was powerful enough to snap off limbs and branches. Either way, as soon as the tree’s exterior was compromised, it would start to bleed resin onto the forest floor: a disaster for the creatures roaming there.
Paleontologist Ryan McKellar of Canada’s Royal Saskatchewan Museum said that the pools of resin acted “like a mini-La Brea Tar Pits.” In other words, a seemingly endless number of prehistoric creatures got stuck forever in the resin. And, as time went on, the gas contained within the sticky substance evaporated, turning it into a polymer that hardened into a substance now known as amber.
And amber makes an unmatchable encasement, when it comes to preservation. While still in its liquid form, resin permeates the bodies of the entrapped creatures. The tree sap proves uniquely effective in stopping the typical decomposition that would normally occur to animals or plants post mortem. Instead, it wards off fungi while gently drying out the specimen contained within.
Eventually, the resin also dries out, creating a shell around the prehistoric creatures that it has trapped. This protection doesn’t just safeguard the shape of the entombed flora and fauna. In some cases, it even keeps the cellular structure of these beings intact, too, making them an invaluable resource for researchers.
And amber fossils found in Myanmar prove to be unlike those found in any other part of the world. Other versions of the honey-hued relics have washed up on the east coast of the Baltic Sea, while miners dig for similar fossils in the Dominican Republic. In these places, though, the fossils are much younger, and they contain insects more often than vertebrates.
Myanmar’s amber, on the other hand, often comes from the country’s prehistoric past. And excavators regularly pluck melon-sized fossils from the ground. Contained within them are more than just the bugs that were too weak to fly away when they got stuck in sticky resin. National Museums Scotland’s head of paleobiology, Andrew Ross, said, “It’s the vertebrates that are absolutely, truly astonishing.”
But mining for these relics hasn’t always been easy, nor has it been a bright spot in Myanmar’s story. Most of the valuable deposits hide in the hills of Tanai, a township in the state of Kachin. The local insurgent Independence Army has long butted heads with the state’s military forces in a power struggle for control of the resources within Kachin’s boundaries.
The armies have battled over everything from timber to jade. Now, the spotlight’s on the incredible store of amber hidden within the Kachin landscape. And it’s not just the fight over the resources that’s the sore spot: mines in the area have devastated the once-lush landscape, according to those who have seen the dirt-covered hills.
One person who has seen the devastation up close is Xing, the paleontologist who inspected the amber fossil containing the world’s smallest dinosaur. He had sneaked into Myanmar in 2014 specifically to see the amber mines. Like others who managed to elude detection, he got to the dig site and saw the method by which they removed the priceless chunks of amber.
The Kachin hills are now peppered with long, narrow shafts which run for up to 100 meters into the earth; into those chutes are sent the mines’ thinnest workers. They seek out the amber deposits hidden deep underground and, when they find them, they dig them out by hand. Still, until nightfall, all of their fossils remain hidden.
None of the miners want to make their big discoveries known, as amber is the most precious reward that the region has to offer. Finding a few pieces can indicate that a shaft has been worth the effort to mine. On top of that, both sides of the military dispute typically ask for bribes to use the land, plus a percentage of profits they earn from their finds.
However, for scientists, the value of these amber fossils cannot be matched. According to Science, in 2018 alone researchers uncovered a whopping 321 new species encased in bits of hardened tree sap. That meant that, overall, they had discovered nearly 1,200 animals and plants thanks to these pristine fossil samples.
As such, some experts look at Myanmar as the pinnacle of fossil deposits, as far as the dinosaur era goes. They point to the biodiversity in the amber as proof. University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie put it plainly, saying, “You think this can’t even be possible, but it’s happening.”
Joshua Sokol explained it simply in his 2019 piece for Science. He wrote, “Single fossils within that bonanza illuminate how creatures lived and where they fit into the tree of life. Taken together, the finds benchmark the birth of lineages and ecological relationships that still undergird modern ecosystems.”
Not all of the creatures found have been dinosaurs, either. According to National Geographic magazine, there have been multiple insects, a single snake and even a few dinosaurs encased with their feathers still intact. And paleontologist Xing has made the greatest effort to find and catalogue as many of these fossils as possible.
And that’s precisely why the extra-small fossil in question fell into Xing’s hands. As outlined in the 2020 piece in National Geographic, an initial inspection of the amber-encased fossilized head left him befuddled. The paleontologist thought that whatever was inside was “too strange.”
At first glance, the 1.5-centimeter-long animal skull resembled that of an early bird. It had the trademark long nose and extra-large eyes, like other winged creatures of its era. However, it had an unexpected feature, at least for an avian species: a mouth full of teeth, with 23 bedecking the upper half of the jaw.
Each tooth measured in at less than a half-millimeter in length, and experts have come to theorize that the creature had 40 of them in total. As such, they could conclude that this small dinosaur was not as cute as its petite size may have indicated. Instead, it used its extra-large eyes to spot prey before chomping it up with a mouth full of fangs.
And the amber-encased creature did it all with a barely-there frame. Its less-than-two-centimeter skull would likely make it about the same size as a modern-day bee hummingbird if its whole body had remained intact. As such, the ancient avian-looking creature probably weighed the same as the buzzing bird, which measures in at roughly 3.25 grams.
With all of this information in mind, scientists could hypothesize exactly what type of creature they were looking at: a feathered dinosaur. It had two previously discovered relatives, the Archaeopteryx and Jeholornis, both of which are proven relatives of the birds flying overhead today. They couldn’t say for certain how well the littlest one flew, though: they would need a full-body fossil to appear to study such traits.
Still, they could say for certain that the amber-encased skull came from the smallest dinosaur they had ever found. The creature earned the title and a name, too. They called its genus Oculudentavis, a concatenation of the Latin words for its most noteworthy traits: bird, tooth and eye.
Ryan Carney, a University of Central Florida paleontologist, chimed in after hearing the study’s findings, although he wasn’t involved in the research. He gushed in an email to National Geographic about the preservatory strength of amber. He wrote, “This is truly one of the rarest and most spectacular of finds!”
Carney waxed poetic about the unique process that captured the Oculudentavis as it was millions of years ago. He wrote, “Like capturing Cretaceous lightning in a bottle, this amber preserves an unprecedented snapshot of a miniature dinosaur skull with exciting new features.”
As previously indicated, Xing hadn’t sussed out all of the creature’s unique features with the power of his eye alone. Instead, he had sent the fossil from his post at the Chinese University of Geosciences onward to an X-ray facility in Shanghai. The resulting, close-up images then went to Jingmai O’Connor, who worked at China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology as a paleontologist, too.
For O’Connor, it wasn’t the strangeness of the skull that struck her right away – it was the incredible condition in which they had found the dinosaur. She said, “This [fossil] was so pristine and so well-preserved. This thing was super-perfect.” That was good news for her and her team, whose job it was to figure out the age of the Oculudentavis.
The high-resolution scans helped O’Connor and the rest of the paleontology professionals to analyze how mature the dinosaur was, based on its levels of bone fusion: the more tightly merged they were, the older the creature was. From that, they deduced that the amber-encased Oculudentavis had met its fate in adulthood, thus rendering its extra-small size even more noteworthy.
Still, something about the dinosaur didn’t sit right with O’Connor: its extra-large eyes. She could tell that its peepers would have bulged out from the sides of its miniscule skull. So, she consulted a California-based researcher named Lars Schmitz, who had focused his career on the study of vision evolution.
Schmitz’s look at the Oculudentavis ended up corroborating O’Connor’s deductions. He pored over the same detailed X-rays and saw that the dinosaur’s eyes had similar proportions to those you’d find on a small bird with large eyes. As such, he also believed that the amber-bound skull belonged to an adult dinosaur.
Still, the new dinosaur had some unique features that didn’t tie it to seemingly similar species. In other birds or reptiles, bony rings support the eye and the rest of the organs that create vision. In the Oculudentavis, though, Schmitz found bones that resembled the shape of an ice cream scoop. As he told National Geographic, “That isn’t really seen in any other bird, or any other dinosaur.”
But another animal did have bones in a similar shape in its eye, too: diurnal lizards, or those that roam during the day. So, Schmitz could deduce that Oculudentavis relied on its extra-large peepers to see its prey in the sunlit hours. Then, it would snatch up insects with all of the teeth in its snout.
Schmitz reiterated to The Washington Post newspaper in 2020, “We definitely can say that it’s a visually oriented animal.” No matter what, though, the remains of the Oculudentavis were more than worthy of his time. He told the paper his reaction to seeing the creature for the first time, which was, “Holy moly, this is really interesting.”
Ultimately, though, the very strange-looking Oculudentavis provides a glimpse into the unique environment in which it evolved. O’Connor explained to National Geographic that miniature animals appear in places where resources become scarce. Indeed, many experts believe that today’s amber deposits formed on ancient islands, a prime example of a habitat where food could be tougher to find.
And as noted, experts couldn’t help but highlight the incredible qualities of amber in concluding their commentary on Oculudentavis. Paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster told The Washington Post, “It blows my mind.” She pointed out that creatures as small and “delicate” as this dinosaur would “not have a chance” to make it into the modern era otherwise.
Sadly, though, experts only had the skull of Oculudentavis to work with – and Xing heard rustlings that the rest of the dinosaur’s body may have been in the amber, too. However, the paleontologist only got to the fossil by the time it had been split and polished into two ready-to-sell items, meaning there was no way of verifying that the two halves had come from the same dinosaur.
Nonetheless, scientists have said that they’ll keep an out for any more pieces of the peculiar dinosaur that may come out of the Myanmar mines. Schmitz told National Geographic that such a find excited him, to say the least. He said, “Oh, I can’t even describe it!. The skull is so odd… who knows what else we’ll learn in addition to what we’ve described so far?”