If you’ve spent any time in the palaeo corners of the internet within the past week, you’ve probably heard at least a little bit about amber – perhaps some vague descriptions, perhaps accompanied by pictures – and in particular, some seemingly unbelievable specimens from the burmite mines of Myanmar. And when I say “the past week”, I mean it, because all of this has somehow flown under the radar until recently.
This is as good a time as any to disclose that I emailed Chris Meehan – the man responsible for the main website going around and many of the specimens themselves – this past Thursday regarding the pictures and the overall situation, with what I think was a healthy mix of curiosity and skepticism. Since this was a private email exchange between the two of us, I don’t see any good reason to share details unless a) it becomes necessary to do so at a later date to provide possible context and b) I get permission to do that. But at least you can get a better idea of where I’m coming from.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the topic in the past week, particularly on Twitter, but as several parties have pointed out, it’s not really the best medium to promote the longform, nuanced discussion that this issue probably needs. So I figured I’d post about it. I’ve tried to structure this as best as possible, but I’ve got a lot going on with university and work, so forgive me if this gets a bit disjointed and ramble-y. (EDIT 1/26/18: I’ve also just received permission to post pictures from the Living Amber website here – which is cool, since the second half of the post was looking a bit dry up until now.)
For the uninitiated…
The published works
The Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar harbors one of the most productive amber localities in the world. From what I’ve been able to find, Cruickshank & Ko 2003 provides a good overview of the geological setting of the area – current consensus is that the amber is mid-Cretaceous (either Albian or Cenomanian).
Most of the amber mines are located near the village of Tanai in Kachin State. Aside from being extremely plentiful, the fragments of “burmite” often preserve inclusions of plant or invertebrate material – indeed, the specimens have been recognized as “the most important amber for studying terrestrial diversity in the mid-Cretaceous” (Guo et al. 2017) and “one of the most diverse Mesozoic microbiotas now known” (Grimaldi et al. 2002). Both of these papers provide excellent summaries of the flora and fauna collected from the region, as well as their significance to modern paleoecology.
I first heard of the Hukawng Valley back in mid-2016, when the wings of a primitive enantiornithean bird were described in Nature Communications (Xing et al. 2016a). The images briefly took the internet by storm, and I remember being super excited. We had only dreamed about this before: real bits of dinosaur preserved in amber! And a little bittersweet – a find so rare that it could only be an isolated occurrence.
Except it wasn’t. Because only a few months later, news emerged of a small piece of theropod tail from the same locality and preserved the same way (Xing et al. 2016b). To reiterate: a small piece of nonavian dinosaur in amber. Once again, the internet is set alight with interest and enthusiasm. The comparisons to Jurassic Park are predictably beaten to death. And I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more down the pipeline.
And mere months later, we end up with the body of a hatchling enantiornithean, complete with soft tissue, plumage, and pigmentation (Xing et al. 2017). Which I think speaks for itself.
At the time, I made the same, somewhat ambitious (and perhaps overambitious) comment to myself and a couple friends: we’re looking at the future of modern paleontology. With each new photograph published, we gaze directly through the lens of deep time at soft tissue, feather development, taphonomic settings, and so much else in such a way that a scant few years ago, it would have been regarded as improbable fantasy. But the future was on its way, and it was only a matter of time.
I did not expect it to arrive so soon, and in such an unconventional manner.
I seem to have a knack for getting interrupted from important assignments by odd and unexpected paleontological stories. Last year, it happened with Ornithoscelida. Now…it’s this. And in both instances, Twitter was the messenger of chaos.
At dinner on Wednesday the 17th, I’m linked the above image and a number of thoughts immediately cross my mind:
1. How in the hell have I not heard about this yet?
2. What’s this doing in Commons instead of a published journal?
A brief, frenzied episode of Internet digging later and I find the website that’s been the subject of much discussion lately: livingamber.com. Set aside some time and read through the pages yourself. If I could describe the site in one word, ignoring any connotations, it would be “fascinating”. And I think that’s an accurate description, regardless of whether the details presented are accurate or not.
It seems unbelievable in the most literal sense, and after the initial high wore off I started to look at things with a considerable dose of skepticism. Some of the pictures were good, and some of them were…not so good. If you squint at pixels for too long, the diminishing returns start to reveal themselves. So I sent a note over to Chris Meehan, the person seemingly behind all these images and fantastical claims.
As I said at the top of the post, this was a private exchange, but our discussion was (and remains) pleasant and good-natured, and worthwhile from my perspective. I have many thoughts.
This purported pterosaur is obviously the most provocative specimen to many people, but I don’t actually have too much to say about it. Meehan makes an effort to label the images and point out certain features of note – but I think this is a case where observing the specimens in person would be much more conducive than staring at pictures. Since Meehan and crew have done so, it seems worth giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I remain healthily skeptical, especially given the numerous nods to David Peters hypotheses. For those out of the loop, this Tetrapod Zoology article should serve you nicely. I remained so far unconvinced with the ideas of skin membrane morphology and pterosaurian ancestry presented by Meehan on the website – but I will at least concede that he and crew are working with actual specimens, instead of grabbing photographs and running them through various Photoshop layers in a methodologically questionable manner. CT scans of this one are apparently in progress so we’ll see where that goes.
The same goes for the color of the pycnofibres – the image of a tiny green pterosaur covered in shiny fuzz is delightful in a number of ways. But as I understand it, green is a helluva color to try and pull off. If SVP 2017 taught me anything, it’s that structural coloration is a hot button topic right now, so who knows what the consensus in the near future will be, if one will actually exist at all (and this is completely ignoring pigments and melanosomes, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish that I have deliberately been trying to sidestep). Interestingly, according to a friend of mine who actually knows this stuff far better than I do, blue feathers/integument can actually appear green through varying amounts and qualities of amber, so I suppose that’s another possibility. In the meantime, I recommend this post by Matt Martyniuk about feather color. Although perhaps not quite as relevant for this purported pterosaur, it should come in handy when considering some of the other feathery structures seen and imaged.
It’s the “reptiles” that admittedly intrigue me the most – the ones with clear skeletal structure and CT data to go along with it. I imagine this is no coincidence, as the site seems to indicate that Meehan is working directly with Juan Daza, a herpetologist from Sam Houston State University who has published on Burmese amber before, on these specimens.
And that’s about it, really. I have very little else to say about these specimens until more/better pictures or more/better data appear (and ideally, of course, a paper).
And that, I suppose, is the paradox at the heart of the matter. As I understand things, the Living Amber website is deliberately intended to be a recruitment effort of sorts: to provide information to interested parties and encourage potential collaboration to study these specimens. But I haven’t seen many people do so, precisely because no independent party has seriously investigated these claims yet.
There’s really no easy answer for this. It’s quite the conundrum, and I’m still not happy with the above paragraph attempting to explain this conundrum after retyping it several times. The best conclusion I can offer is an honest one: Many of Meehan and co.’s claims are quite fantastical in nature, and based on what has so far been presented, I’m not convinced by all of them yet. But it IS clear that the horizon from which all this amber hails in the first place is a significant one. Incredible inclusions from the Kachin have been and continue to be published, and they all have fascinating implications for paleobiology and paleoecology. All identities aside – pterosaur or not at all – it may be worth taking a look.
Comments and feedback appreciated. I didn’t cover nearly all that I wanted to, so there may be more on this topic from me in the future.
- Cruickshank, R.D., Ko, K. Geology of an amber locality in the Hukawng Valley, northern Myanmar. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, 21: 441–455 (2003).
- Grimaldi, D.A. et al. Fossiliferous Cretaceous amber from Myanmar (Burma): Its rediscovery, biotic diversity, and paleontological significance. American Museum Novitates, 3361: 1–72 (2002).
- Guo, M.X. et al. A catalogue of Burmite inclusions. Zoological Systematics, 42(3): 249–379 (2017).
- Xing, L. et al. Mummified precocial bird wings in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Nat. Commun. 7, 12089 (2016a).
- Xing, L. et al. A feathered dinosaur tail with primitive plumage trapped in mid-Cretaceous amber. Curr. Biol. 26, 3352–3360 (2016b).
- Xing, L. et al. A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine (Aves) hatchling preserved in Burmese amber with unusual plumage. Gondwana Res. 49, 264–277 (2017).