This ‘smallest dinosaur’ trapped in amber is 99 million years old, looks like it died yesterday!

Oculudentavis khaungraae
Oculudentavis khaungraae

The skull of an extraordinarily well preserved bird in amber from 99 million years ago, found in Burma, is the smallest dinosaur known to date.

Burmese amber with Oculudentavis skull nearly perfectly preserved inside.
Burmese amber with Oculudentavis skull nearly perfectly preserved inside. © Lida Xing

The specimen, called “Oculudentavis khaungraae“, was trapped in a piece of amber dated to the middle of the Mesozoic era. This means between 251 million years ago and 65 million years ago. Lida Xing from China University of Geosciences first examined this piece of amber in early 2020.

The skull of this dinosaur was only seven millimeters long

This is a size that is similar to the zunzuncito, which is the smallest species of hummingbird. Therefore, it would make it the smallest known dinosaur, according to the journal Nature.

“Like all animals trapped in amber, it is very well preserved. We have the impression that it died yesterday, with all its soft tissues preserved in this small window of ancient times,” commented the study’s lead author, Jingmai O’Connor. She is part of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleontropology in Beijing.

This is an illustration of the smallest dinosaur. Image: Han Zhixin / China University of Geosciences
This is an illustration of the smallest dinosaur. © Image: Han Zhixin / China University of Geosciences

The skull in profile is dominated by a large eye socket, suggesting that there was an eye looking sideways, similar to that of the lizard. With the help of a scanner, the researchers revealed a jaw with a hundred pointed teeth inside the beak.

It was a small predator

“It does not resemble any species alive today, so we must be imaginative to understand what its morphology means. However, its tapered skull, multiple teeth and large eyes suggest that despite its size it was probably a predator that fed on insects,” according to the paleontologist.

An image from a CT scan of the smallest dinosaur skull. Photo: Li Gang / China University of Geosciences
An image from a CT scan of the smallest dinosaur skull. © Photo: Li Gang / China University of Geosciences

The vertebrate coexisted with long-necked dinosaurs and large flying reptiles such as pterosaurs, in a period of abundant fauna.

It was part of a microfauna that only amber could preserve. Without this fossil resin, “we would not know anything about these tiny organisms, much more difficult to find than the large ones,” said this scientist.

When we think of dinosaurs, we imagine immense skeletons but currently paleontology is being completely transformed thanks to the discovery of fossils preserved in this way. There must be fragments of DNA preserved inside, from which we can acquire the priceless knowledge of how the prehistoric world once evolved.

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