Published: Fri, March 20, 2020
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

'Wonderchicken' fossil reveals early ancestor of modern birds

'Wonderchicken' fossil reveals early ancestor of modern birds

We've known for some time now that birds are descended from meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, thanks to 'missing link' discoveries like 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx - it had features such as teeth (like its dinosaur ancestors did), but also feathers and wrist bones shared by modern birds.

Researchers used high-resolution X-ray CT scans to peer through the rock and view the skull just one millimetre beneath. The beak doesn't seem tailored to a specific kind of diet, either; in fact, the entire skull looks like a mashup of a modern duck and chicken.

Nicknamed "Wonderchicken", the little fossil is around 66.7 million years old, and was found in a Belgian quarry when an amateur fossil collector saw its bones sticking out of the ground. And they were probably on the smaller side, Field says: The smaller the bird, the fewer resources it would have needed.

"When we CT scanned the rocks to get a better look at the limb bones we were shocked to discover an incredible, almost complete skull peering out at us from the computer screen", said University of Cambridge paleontologist Daniel Field, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature. Though people have been digging for fossils in the site where this particular skull came from for over 200 years, he wants to find even older bird ancestors in Europe or in the Northern Hemisphere. "Therefore, we think Asteriornis may have prowled the ancient shorelines of Europe, which at the time would have had beaches similar to what we see in the Bahamas - the world was much warmer at the time!"

"Finding the skull blew my mind", said co-author Juan Benito.

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"The ability to CT scan fossils - like we can at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre - has completely transformed how we study paleontology in the 21st century", Field added. According to the scientists, the skull, despite its age, is clearly recognisable as a modern bird. "This fossil provides our earliest direct glimpse of what modern birds were like during the initial stages of their evolutionary history", Chen said.

"We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact", said co-author Dr. Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

"This is a unique specimen: we've been calling it the "wonderchicken", claimed Dr Daniel Field of the University of Cambridge.

Scientists do know that crown birds emerged during the ensuing Cretaceous period, but these animals are poorly represented in the fossil record. "Asteriornis now gives us a search image for future fossil discoveries - hopefully it ushers in a new era of fossil finds that help clarify how, when and where modern birds first evolved", he added.

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