Dinosaur-era bird with scythe-like beak sheds light on avian diversity

James Marshall
November 28, 2020

"These features give the skull of Falcatakely an nearly comical profile - imagine a creature resembling a tiny, buck-toothed toucan flitting from branch to branch, occasionally glancing down at Madagascar's formidable Late Cretaceous inhabitants", he writes, "which included equally freaky mammals and giant predatory dinosaurs".

"Unlike the earliest birds such as Archaeopteryx, which in many ways still looked dinosaurian with their long tails and unspecialized snouts, enantiornithines like Falcatakely would have looked relatively modern", Turner said.

In fact, it nearly was, sitting in a backlog of excavated fossils for years before CT scanning suggested the specimen deserved more attention.

Patrick O'Connor, the lead author on the study and professor of Anatomical Sciences at Ohio University, told Inverse that as soon as they started to carefully remove the rock from around those delicate bones they realised that they have got something really neat. "Mesozoic birds with such high, long faces are completely unknown, with Falcatakely providing a great opportunity to reconsider ideas around head and beak evolution in the lineage leading to modern birds".

Falcatakely - described in the journal Nature - was dug up in what is now northwestern Madagascar.

While Falcatakely would have had a face quite familiar to us from such modern birds as toucans and hornbills, the bones that made up its face bear little resemblance to those modern creatures.

It was in the underlying skeletal structure where its differences were more apparent, O'Connor added, with more similarities to dinosaurs like Velociraptor than modern birds.

"Because of this, we need to be aware that we are probably under-sampling the Mesozoic diversity of birds".

Revealing these features was no easy task. This fossil bird discovery adds a new twist on the evolution of skulls and beaks in birds and their close relatives, showing that evolution can work through different developmental pathways to achieve similar head shapes in very distantly related animals.

When researchers finally turned their attention to it seven years later, they faced a problem: the skull and beak were far too fragile to extract for examination.

Due to the fragility of the fossil and the fact it cannot be fully removed from its rocky case, the researchers "digitally extracted" the fragile bones using scans.

Then they reconstructed the skull with 3D printing and compared it to other species.

What they found was an nearly touchingly improbable animal, according to Daniel Field, of Cambridge University's department of earth sciences, who reviewed the study for Nature.

It is not just the unexpected bill, but the fact that the beak in the fossil is tipped with a single preserved tooth, possibly one of many the bird would have had.

"These features give the skull of Falcatakely an nearly comical profile - imagine a creature resembling a tiny, buck-toothed toucan", Field wrote.

Falcatakely belongs to an extinct group of birds called Enantiornithes, exclusively from the Cretaceous period and predominantly found in Asia.

"There is a span exceeding 50 million years where we know next to nothing about avian evolutionary history", he said.

Bird skeletons - especially skulls - are rare in the fossil record due to their lightweight bones and small size. An global team of researchers led by Ohio University professor Dr. Patrick O'Connor and Stony Brook University professor Dr. Alan H. Turner announced the discovery today in the journal Nature.

However, researchers say Falcatakely is extraordinary and unlike most of its contemporaries that also lived 65-250 million years ago.

"Did it relate to processing food?"

Prof O'Connor said: 'Falcatakely might generally resemble any number of modern birds with the skin and beak in place.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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