The skull of the smallest-known dinosaur was found preserved in a 99 million-year-old amber

The amber fossil, which has since been named Oculudentavis, is from the skull of one of the smallest dinosaurs to have ever existed, researchers suggest.

The skull of the smallest-known dinosaur was found preserved in a 99 million-year-old amber
Image Source: Lida Xing / Nature

Nature is just the wackiest thing. Recently, researchers found a fossil that contained a rather beautiful discovery. Trapped inside a 99 million-year-old amber, they discovered the complete skull of a formerly unknown species of bird-like dinosaur, CNN reports. The skull was perfectly preserved and is reportedly smaller than the size of the tiniest hummingbird alive today. About the size of a thumbnail, the head features jaws packed with serrated teeth and bulging lizard-like eyes. Though the creature was incredibly small, it was most likely a predator, researchers explained. The fossil has since been named Oculudentavis, which roughly translates to eye-tooth bird, and currently represents the smallest dinosaur ever found.



Jingmai O'Connor, a senior professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, stated, "When I first saw this specimen, it really blew my mind. I literally have never seen anything like this. There [are] over 100 teeth present in the jaws. These weird eyes sticking off looking to the side. There's nothing like this alive today." This skull tells us something that we may not necessarily assume about dinosaurs. While we typically think of dinosaurs as large, lumbering creatures, this fossil - and other finds unearthed in the amber - shows us that life during the age of dinosaurs was probably more diverse than we initially assumed.



It would not be wrong to suggest, therefore, that there were many more tiny dinosaurs and other creatures that have not necessarily shown up on the fossil record thus far. "One of the key messages from this study is that we are probably missing a big chunk of the ecosystem of the dinosaurs," explained Lars Schmitz, a biology professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California. "We don't know a lot about tiny things in the age of the dinosaurs." Schmitz and O'Connor authored the paper about the recently discovered skull. The paper was published earlier this week in the journal Nature.



The researchers pointed out that unlike bones in sediments such as clay, silt, and sand, bones found in amber are preserved in three dimensions. The former unfortunately crushes and destroys the remains of small animals. Amber, on the other hand, which forms from the resin of coniferous trees, does not do this. O'Connor shared, "When you have an animal preserved in amber it looks like it just died yesterday -- all the soft tissue in place trapped into this little window into an ancient time." The amber hence gives us a look at this "ancient time" in a manner that researchers have not been previously given access to.



Oculudentavis is not the first dinosaur skeleton to be found entombed in amber. In 2016, Chinese paleontologist Lida Xing discovered a dinosaur tail at an amber market in northern Myanmar. Ever since this find, he has unearthed several more by traveling to Myanmar and its border with China every two months or so. He, too, helped author this paper. He stated, "I think the diversity of dinosaurs is beyond our imagination. We previously found a dinosaur footprint of one centimeter in length, which I thought was the minimum length of a dinosaur. Until we found Oculudentavis."



The dinosaur skull is incredibly unique in comparison to previous finds. This uniqueness, while difficult to decode, poses an interesting challenge for researchers. "Previously people thought amber will be a great source for DNA or proteins, but recent studies demonstrate that it is probably not the case. But, anyway, it often preserves skin, feathers and other non-skeletal tissues, and... we can get lots of information [from this]," O'Connor said. "When we think of dinosaurs, we think of these huge skeletons, but paleontology right now is being completely transformed by the discovery of skeletal fossils, fossils of vertebrates, preserved in amber." This discovery just goes to show that the little guys matter too.