Best foot forward

Ancient bird had a giant toe.

Great for eating, but hard to buy socks. Elektorornis chenguangi had interesting feet.

Zhongda Zhang / Current Biology

If you think this ancient bird has odd looking feet, you’re right.

Chinese researchers have discovered that Elektorornis chenguangi had a hyper-elongated third toe that was actually longer than its lower leg – the first time such a foot structure has been observed in birds, either living or extinct.

They suspect, as this reconstruction suggests, that the toe was used to hook food out of tree trunks.

The actual toe – from 99 million years ago – was found preserved in amber. Hence the name: Elektorornis means "amber bird”.

"I was very surprised when I saw the amber," says first author Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences, Beijing. "It shows that ancient birds were way more diverse than we thought. They had evolved many different features to adapt to their environments."

Based on the fossil, Xing’s team estimates that Elektorornis was arboreal, and smaller than a modern sparrow.

Their findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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