Monday August 07, 2017

'Quite a treasure': Scientists find 4,200-year-old bird preserved in glacial ice

The 4,200-year-old redwing thrush's organs are perfectly intact.

The 4,200-year-old redwing thrush's organs are perfectly intact. (Trond Sverre Kristiansen/NTNU University Museum)

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Story transcript

Scientists in Norway have discovered the almost perfectly preserved remains of a bird that soared the skies 4,200 years ago.

"It was very exciting," Jorgen Rosvold, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton.

"It looks almost fresh. It looks like it died just yesterday or a few weeks ago — but, actually, it's over 4,000 years old."

The ancient redwing thrush was found by an employee of Norway's environment ministry on a snow bank in the Oppdal mountains, Rosvold said.

He said the creature must have been buried in the snow soon after it died and remained there, frozen in glacial ice, for thousands of years. 

It wasn't until they had the bird's feathers carbon-dated that scientists realized what a significant discovery they had on their hands. 

"At first, I had to call the lab and just check if they were correct with the age because I didn't think it could be that old," Rosvold said. "But it was correct and it's, yeah, just fabulous."

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A modern-day redwing (right) and a Fieldfare (left) perch in a bush while feeding on berries near Rainham Marshes on in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

When he and his colleagues examined the remains more closely, he was again shocked by what they found. 

"We dissected it last week, just to see if there was anything at all inside it or if it's just a big porridge of rotten intestines," he said.

"Everything was intact inside. We can take out the heart. We can take out the lungs. We can take out the kidneys and even the intestines in one piece. That was a big surprise as well."

NTNU

Jorgen Rosvold, right, examines the ancient remains of a bird found preserved in glacial ice. (Trond Sverre Kristiansen/NTNU University Museum)

The implications for scientific study are huge, he said.

"That means we can study a lot of the biology and the history of the bird and we can compare the bird that lived essentially in the Stone Age to birds that are living here today," he said.

"We can look at the effects of pollution and we look at the DNA to see if it's changed a lot and we can look at the diet of the bird and the parasites and feces, possibly. It's quite a treasure."

Rosvold is now left wondering what other treasures are out there, waiting to be discovered. 

"I've never tried to date an animal that looks this young before, so it might be that there are even more animals that are that age as well."