Bizarre Fossilized Skull May Be the Missing Link Between Dinosaurs and Birds

Thursday, 03 May 2018 - 11:45AM
Earth
Thursday, 03 May 2018 - 11:45AM
Bizarre Fossilized Skull May Be the Missing Link Between Dinosaurs and Birds
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The crushing disappointment every kid feels when they find out that velociraptors had feathers is comparable to encountering a mall Santa smoking in the parking lot without his beard. Now that everyone's (kind of) made their peace with it and can (kind of) appreciate that birds are descended from dinosaurs, we can all start to get excited about new discoveries like the one published in Nature: paleontologists have discovered a new, flying dino that may reveal how birds transformed from toothed land animals to beaked flying ones.

The creature in question is Ichthyornis dispar, a seabird-like dinosaur that flew around prehistoric Kansas and plucked fish out of the water. Ichthyornis was a striking hybrid of seagull and dinosaur, primarily when it came to its mouth: in addition to having a beak, it also had teeth and powerful jaws, the latter of which are more typical of a dinosaur. Because Ichthyornis' characteristics are somewhere between a bird and an old-school dino, it's considered an important "stem bird," an ancestor to modern birds that can give insight into how they evolved and changed. 

Paleontologists have struggled to get an accurate picture of Ichthyornis because they've only found fragments of its skull. Recently, however, an intact skull was found encased in a block of chalk. Scientists were able to scan this to create a 3-D recreation without damaging the skull itself in excavation.

They've made two major discoveries: Ichthyornis was able to move the upper part of its beak independently of its skull (a very modern trait when it comes to bird characteristics), and despite strong jaws, it had an unusually large brain. The former discovery lends credence to the theory that bird beaks evolved to become an all-purpose grabber, rather than just a mouth. The latter challenges our theory that, as Ichthyornis' brain grew in size, its skull would change to become thicker and stronger and thereby eliminate space for its jaws.

This is a major step forward, but it also raises new questions, says geology professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar: "Ichthyornis fills in an important gap, but of course everything that fills a gap makes two more gaps on either side. Now we need to figure out how the remainder of the transformations toward the bird's skull occurred."

Yeah, and hopefully one day science can explain the genesis of the murder swan...
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