Analysis sheds light on how birds evolved beaks

Avatar By Joseph Scalise | 2 years ago

Scientists at Yale University have found new evidence that could help explain how modern birds evolved to have beaks, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

It is well known that modern gulls evolved from dinosaurs like velociraptor and T. Rex. However, researchers have never been able to fully compile how the feathered animals evolved from ancient reptiles.

To fill in such gaps, the team behind the study looked as the fossils from an ancient species known as Ichthyornis dispar to get a better look at the missing links in bird evolution.

Ichthyornis looked like a seabird. It had a long beak, large eyes, and existed between 100 million and 66 million years ago in what is now modern day Kansas. However, despite their features, they had teeth as well as the musculature to use them.

“It was probably flying about, picking out morsels of fish and shellfish, grabbing them with its little pincer beak and then throwing them back into its strong, dinosaurian toothed jaws — crunching them a few times and then swallowing them,” explained study co-author Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University according to NPR.

That unique mix of beak, teeth, wings and jaws made the species critical to bird evolution. To better understand the ancient creatures, researchers performed a series of high-resolution CT scans on a fully intact skull fossil unearthed in 2014.

They then compared the remains to other previously discovered fossils. That process revealed, not only could Ichthyornis move its beak like modern birds, but the animals’ jaws also grew alongside their skull.

 

Previously, scientists believed that, as bird skulls evolved to hold larger brains, the jaws around the head shrunk. However, the recent discovery reveals that Ichthyornis has both a large brain and strong jaws at the same time.

That gives new insight into bird evolution and could help researchers better understand both modern and ancient avian species.

“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,” said Steve Brusatte, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the research, according to BBC News.