'Wonderchicken' fossil sheds light on dawn of modern birds

Katie Ramirez
March 21, 2020

Using high-resolution X-ray CT scans, researchers delved into the rock to discover what was lying beneath the surface.

An ancient fossil is giving scientists an insight into how an early ancestor to today's chickens and ducks survived the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. It was found in a limestone quarry located in the proximity of the Belgian-Dutch border, and it has an age of 66.7 million years, according to initial tests. Their efforts revealed a stunning discovery: the nearly-complete skull of a 66.7-million-year-old bird.

The researchers hope that "wonderchicken" will give new light into how birds first emerged, largely surviving the aforementioned asteroid, and how they became as diverse as they are today.

"This gives us with the very first direct glimpse we have ever had of a bird out of about 66.7 million decades back", explained Daniel Field, by the University of Cambridge. Though more fossils may someday change the story, the new findings hint that birds may have acquired some important traits in just the nick of time-just hundreds of thousands of years before that fateful space rock smashed into Earth.

"The ability to CT scan fossils, like we can at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, has completely transformed how we study palaeontology in the 21st century".

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An artist's impression of the world's oldest known modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis, in its shoreline habitat during the Cretaceous. According to the scientists, the skull, despite its age, is clearly recognisable as a modern bird.

"Asteriornis seems to be close to the most recent common ancestor of Galloanserae, so it seems like all 300 living species of chicken-like birds and 177-living species of duck-like birds may be descended from an Asteriornis-like bird", said Field. "We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact", said study co-author Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, US.

The fossil bird has actually been called Asteriornis maastrichtensis, after Asteria, a Greek siren of dropping celebrities that becomes a quail. "The discovery of Asteriornis provides some of the first evidence that Europe was a key area in the early evolutionary history of modern birds", said John Jagt, another co-author of the study from the Natuurhistorische Museum Maastricht in the Netherlands.

"This fossil tells us that early on, at least some modern birds were fairly small-bodied, ground-dwelling birds that lived near the seashore", added Field. It's unique for a number of reasons, including the fact that it's the oldest example of a modern bird on record as well as the first fossil of a modern bird from its time period found in the northern hemisphere.

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