We used to think of dinosaurs as giant lizards, but scientists now believe these creatures were much more bird-like, and some of them were tiny. A new species of dinosaur has been discovered in Myanmar trapped in a block of fossilized amber. This 99-million-year-old specimen was about the size of a bee hummingbird, making it the smallest known dinosaur.
The drop of ancient amber (fossilized tree sap) only contains the animal’s head, but that’s enough for scientists to confirm it did not come from any previously known species of dinosaur. It has been dubbed Oculudentavis khaungraae, and the team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing believes it would have only weighed about two grams when alive.
The fossil features a bird-like beak filled with numerous small, pointed teeth, oversized eye sockets, and the remains of fine feathers on the head. Given its size and age, researchers believe Oculudentavis was most likely a flying dinosaur. However, it’s very different than modern birds. Its name means “eye tooth bird,” which tells you about its most defining features. Since we only have a head to go on, it’s hard to determine how Oculudentavis might relate to modern birds. Some features fit closely with other flying dinosaurs, and others are unique to Oculudentavis.
Given the toothy beak, the team studying Oculudentavis believes it was a predator that preyed on small insects. Unlike modern predators, Oculudentavis probably didn’t have binocular vision. Birds have a ring of bones around the eye known as the scleral ring. These square-shaped bones help support the eye, but the scleral bones in Oculudentavis are spoon-shaped. That’s a characteristic only found in some lizards today. This would have given Oculudentavis eyes that bulged out of the sides of its head. The large relative size of the eyes and the small pupils suggest it was a daytime hunter as well.
Its small size could be a response to evolving on an isolated island or perhaps it evolved to fill a very specific ecological niche. CT scans of the amber have also revealed the specimen could have some preserved soft tissue inside, possibly remnants of the tongue. Studying that in greater detail could help researchers understand how this creature relates to modern birds and understand its place in the Cretaceous era.
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