Fossilised fragments of a skeleton, hidden within a rock the size of a grapefruit, have helped upend one of the longest-standing assumptions about the origins of modern birds.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht found that one of the key skull features that characterises 99% of modern birds — a mobile beak — evolved before the mass extinction event that killed all large dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.
This finding also suggests that the skulls of ostriches, emus and their relatives evolved ‘backwards’, reverting to a more primitive condition after modern birds arose.
Using CT scanning techniques, the Cambridge team identified bones from the palate, or the roof of the mouth, of a new species of large ancient bird, which they named Janavis finalidens. It lived at the very end of the Age of Dinosaurs and was one of the last toothed birds to ever live. The arrangement of its palate bones shows that this ‘dino-bird’ had a mobile, dexterous beak, almost indistinguishable from that of most modern birds.
For more than a century, it had been assumed that the mechanism enabling a mobile beak evolved after the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, the new discovery, reported in the journal Nature, suggests that our understanding of how the modern bird skull came to be needs to be re-evaluated. [Continue reading…]