Science

Researchers Discover How Birds Got Their Beaks

first bird beak
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Researchers have discovered the first bird beak by putting together the 3D skull of a legendary, toothed bird that, according to different theories, is the critical moment of when the dinosaurs transitioned to modern-day birds.

The discovery is known as Ichthyornis dispar and it is of great importance for the evolution from dinosaur-like birds to avians as we know them today. The bird lived in the area of North America almost 100 million years ago. The fossils of the bird attracted the attention of many famous naturalists such as Charles Darwin.

“Right under our noses this whole time was an amazing, transitional bird,” Yale paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, principal investigator of a study published in the journal Nature said in a statement. “It has a modern-looking brain along with a remarkably dinosaurian jaw muscle configuration.”

“The first beak was a horn-covered pincer tip at the end of the jaw,” Bhullar, who is also an assistant professor and assistant curator in geology and geophysics, added. “The  remainder of the jaw was filled with teeth. At its origin, the beak was a precision grasping mechanism that served as a surrogate hand as the hands transformed into wings.”

However, the evolution of the dinosaurs into birds was a long and slow process, with feathers, wings and beaks. Although scientists found feathers in the fossil record, it was quite challenging to continue studying the anatomy of a skull that was so small and belonged to ancient birds.

In order to study the first bird beak, the researchers used the fossil evidence from a skull that was complete and two other cranial fossils that were previously overlooked, for the advanced CT scan to discover an advanced 3D model of the skull of the primitive bird.

As per the report in BBC News, study researcher Daniel Field from the University of Bath said that the vast majority of skull fossils are “squashed flat during the fossilization process.”

He added that the newly discovered “extraordinary new specimen” shows brain proportions that resemble those of a modern bird. However, the other parts of the skull are closely related to those that belonged to predatory dinosaurs.

Dr Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, who wasn’t involved in the study of the first bird beak, described it as a game-changer in our understanding of the evolution of the bird beak and brain in modern birds.

“The beaks of these primitive birds were very small and seem to have been evolving to take over some of the functions of the hand, like manipulating food and cleaning the feathers, that became impossible once the hands were incorporated into the wing,” he said as per BBC News.

“This helps show that the evolution of birds from dinosaurs was a long and gradual process – it didn’t just happen overnight, and for much of the Age of Dinosaurs there would have existed these creatures that looked half-dinosaur, half-bird.”

The bones of Ichthyornis were initially discovered by the US paleontologist Othniel C Marsh in the 1870s. Also, Charles Darwin read about and studied the fossil saying that the study of the “old birds” contributed to the theory of evolution.

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