In what was once a fascinating and strange turn of events, scientists have pieced together the skull of a rather peculiar ancient bird, revealing a primitive beak lined with teeth. It is thought that this "transitional" bird gives us a clearer picture of a crucial and pivotal point in the course of the development dinosaur bird ancestors to modern day birds. The dinosaur in question is the Ichthyornis Dispar, which lived in North America about 86 million years ago. The bones of Ichthyornis were first found in the 1870s by the US palaeontologist Othniel C Marsh, but only recently have been used with the latest scanning technology to build up a picture of the intricacies and intrigues of the dinosaur bird's skull structure.
86 Million Years Ago
The bird was around the size of a seagull and, although it had a brain and a beak similar to that of a modern day bird, it importantly also had sharp teeth and powerful jaws like that of a Velociraptor. Bhart-Anjan Bhullar of Yale University, a study researcher, explaining the importance of this piece of evidence, says: "It shows us what the first bird beak looked like, " and on the nature of its mixture of different features, goes on to say that, "It's a real mosaic of features, a transitional form. "
A Transitional Form
This new discovery adds to the understanding we already have of dinosaur proto-birds that they developed into modern day bird form in a slow and gradual process, involving refinement and changes in feathers, wings and beaks. On the matter of feathers, evidence for the existence of this feature on early dinosaur birds has shown up in the fossil record. However, it has proved very difficult to study the anatomy of the tiny delicate skulls of ancient birds. As study researcher Daniel Field, from the University of Bath, explains, most skull fossils are "squashed flat during the fossilisation process". In this case though, the researchers combined fossil evidence from the complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial fossils with the latest CT scanning techniques to build an advanced 3D model of the skull of the primitive bird.
Extraordinary New Specimen
Daniel Field goes on to say that what he calls this "extraordinary new specimen", reveals similar brain proportions to that of a modern bird, while other parts of the skull more closely resemble those of predatory dinosaurs. These assessments and propositions have been supported elsewhere by the likes of Dr Steve Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh, who sees it as a game changer in how we think about the development of dinosaur into bird.
Half-dinosaur / Half-bird
Brusatte has it that the new study "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. "It is worth noting that the famous naturalist Charles Darwin read about the fossil and said the work on "old birds" afforded support for the theory of evolution. And now, a century or so on, the discovery of this strange dinosaur bird is filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the development of the ancient forms of winged creatures into the modern day bird.