Technology

Fossil hunters thought 46,000-year-old ‘icebird’ died yesterday

This 46,000-year-old ‘icebird’ was so well preserved that fossil hunters mistook it for an unfortunate creature that ‘died yesterday’ – only to realise they had found the first ever ice age bird.

Love Dalén was on an expedition with local fossil ivory hunters inside an ice tunnel mined in Siberia when they handed him the prehistoric creature.

The corpse was so well preserved, the dad-of-one originally thought it must have flown into the tunnel last winter and died when it became lost. But Love was stunned when the hunters revealed it came out of the permafrost and when he took it back to the lab to carbon date it, the results came back with the staggering age of 46,000 years.

After originally having ‘no idea’ what breed it was, Love, 44, discovered it was a female horned lark that had lived among woolly rhinoceros, mammoths and cave lions. Amazing pictures show the bird covered in ice and looking almost completely intact – as if it died just days ago.

And for completely mummified specimens from that area of Siberia, the professor of evolutionary genetics Love said he thinks it could even be the oldest discovered. Nicolas Dussex, lead author on the paper about the bird, said: ‘It feels crazy to be working on the first-ever discovered frozen bird from the last Ice Age.’

Love, from Stockholm, Sweden, said: ‘It feels a bit surreal. You get this kind of conflict in your head because it really feels like it died just now but it’s probably that old. It’s almost like time has stopped.

‘[I was] holding that little bird in my hand and feeling that it looks like it died yesterday but might have actually died tens of thousands of years ago. It’s a small animal that would have been flying around and living in that environment with cave lions and mammoths and so on – it’s a pretty special feeling.

‘To be honest I had no idea what it was because I’m not very good at birds. To me it could have been a small thrush or some kind lark or something like that.

‘We sent out a tweet about it and ornithologists and museum curators around the world were speculating on what it was. In the end the consensus among the experts was that it was either a thrush or a lark. Some people called it and some people didn’t.’

‘It’s a fun thing to see how people are so engaged in this and I guess there are a lot of bird lovers out there so it’s great.

‘You’re always playing Devil’s Advocate and saying ‘maybe it isn’t that old, maybe it just got lost in there’ or something but no, it’s even older than most things from that tunnel.

‘Obviously one is excited even though one needs to have a certain level of scepticism. In terms of a complete mummified [specimen] from that area I think this is the oldest.’

Love said the creature is so well-preserved because it must have frozen ‘relatively quickly’ without a chance to decompose – prompting his team to aptly dub it ‘Icebird’.

The paper Love is releasing today [FRI] with lead author Nicolas, 37, says the lark was ancestral to two different subspecies of horned lark in Russia and Mongolia. Love said the identification of the bird turns an earlier estimate of when its two descendants evolved on its head.

Love said: ‘The study deals with radiocarbon dating and a genomic analysis on what is likely the first-ever discovered frozen bird from the last Ice Age. ‘No autopsy has been done but I think we can conclude its death likely wasn’t violent and it must have been frozen relatively quickly because otherwise it falls apart.

‘I’m pretty sure we also sexed it and it’s a female which is also a little fun fact but we’re not entirely sure what we’re going to do with that information.

‘We haven’t discussed giving it a formal name but within our circle we call it ‘Icebird’ because it was found frozen.

‘The way it looks is that the population this lark belonged to probably then split into the two subspecies we have today in Mongolia and northern Russia. And that’s pretty important because I think earlier estimates are that these two subspecies are much older than that.’

Love Dalén was on an expedition with local fossil ivory hunters inside an ice tunnel mined in Siberia when they handed him the prehistoric creature.

Nicolas, who is a postdoctoral researcher in evolution and genomics, said it’s an exciting find because it ‘opens up a new window’ that allows researchers to go further back in time.

Nicolas said: ‘It kind of feels surreal to be working on it because we’ve been working in our lab with things that are a few thousand or hundred years old.

‘You tend to think the limit is around maybe ten to 15 thousand years old and then beyond that it gets really hard to get authentic data. But in this case it was kind of surreal because we had this really old bird that was nearly intact. Even if you don’t know genomics, it’s crazy.

‘The exciting thing is we could get enough DNA out of this very old specimen to do much more interesting analyses. What is exciting is when Love found all these near-intact specimens, it opens up a new window in our field. We can first go back further back in time, which is pretty cool.

Getting the complete genome of this bird and other specimens will give us a much more in-depth understanding of the evolution of the animals during that time or the impact of climate change on them.

‘Imagine [being] the person who found the first baby woolly mammoth or woolly rhinoceros – that’s of course extremely sexy and in this case it’s a tiny bird. But still, it will excite a lot of people in the community.

‘What is going to be the next bird we’re going to find? Could we find an eagle or something that is extinct that we didn’t know existed?

‘At least in the world of avian biology, it’s extremely exciting.’