Science

This is what the first bird beak looked like

This is what the first bird beak looked like

"Ichthyornis, it turns out, is just at this transitional moment", he said, adding that the results "show the order of appearance of modern bird features".

Ichthyornis, an ancient seabird from about 90 million years ago, has always been famous for having a body like a modern bird, with a snout lined with teeth like a dinosaur. "The remainder of the jaw was filled with teeth".

"It was flying around eating probably fish, shellfish and other things, plucking them out of the water with its abbreviated little pincer-tip beak and then tossing them back into its mouth and crunching down on them with its powerful dinosaur-like jaws", said Bhullar. It belongs to Ichthyornis dispar, which lived in North America almost 100 million years ago.

After analyzing that and four additional skulls of the Ichthyornis dispar, a team of researchers in the USA and the United Kingdom came up with a well-defined picture of what they believe the bird looked like. Together, the data was used to produce a three-dimensional, virtual reconstruction of the skull of the ancient bird. It became, Bhullar notes, a surrogate hand-which the bird needed because its forelimbs had evolved into wings.

For more than a century the only known skulls of the ancient bird Ichthyornis were either fragmentary, smashed flat or both.

The co-lead authors on the team, Daniel Field and Michael Hanson, were able to digitally extract the bones.

A co-author of the study, Kristopher Super, was looking for fossils in western Kansas in 2014 when he stumbled upon a rock with many bones sticking out of it.




"In modern birds, the beak is made up of a small region called the maxilla and a larger area called the pre-maxilla".

Dr Daniel Field, from the University of Bath, said: "The fossil record provides our only direct evidence of the evolutionary transformations that have given rise to modern forms, but most fossils are squashed flat during the fossilisation process, making it nearly impossible to study the anatomy of the brain and details of the skull".

He said the "extraordinary new specimen", which was discovered only recently, reveals similar brain proportions to that of a modern bird, while other parts of the skull more closely resemble those of predatory dinosaurs.

"Ichthyornis would have looked very similar to today's seabirds, probably very much like a gull or tern".

In recent years Bhullar's lab has produced a large body of research on various aspects of vertebrate skulls, often zeroing in on the origins of the avian beak.

Until now, when Bhullar and crew reported on a new complete skull and two previously "overlooked" skull pieces. "The skull of Ichthyornis even substantiates our molecular finding that the beak and palate are patterned by the same genes", Bhullar said. All in all, the researchers believe that the creature represents a "transition" between dinosaurs and birds with its "mosaic" of features. "The story of the evolution of birds, the most species-rich group of vertebrates on land, is one of the most important in all of history".


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