New Study Reveals How Birds Might Have Developed Beaks

Scientists have discovered an ancient, “transitional” bird with what appears to be a beak lined with teeth, a creature which they believe represents one of the missing links between bird-like dinosaurs and modern birds.

As explained in a report from BBC News, the creature known as Ichthyornis dispar lived in North America about 86 million years ago and had several features shared with modern birds, including a beak and a similar brain. However, it also resembled some of the fiercer, yet smaller dinosaurs, such as the velociraptor, due to its sharp teeth and strong jaw. All in all, the researchers believe that the creature represents a “transition” between dinosaurs and birds with its “mosaic” of features.

“It shows us what the first bird beak looked like,” said Yale University professor and study author Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, whose team’s research was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Speaking to NPR, Bhullar offered more details on Ichthyornis dispar, explaining that it was specifically similar to seabirds such as gulls and terns, and lived in what is now known as Kansas, back when it was still an inland sea. He also explained how the prehistoric creature might have used its teeth and jaw to consume its prey.

“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.”

While it was hard at first to study Ichthyornis dispar due to the lack of intact skull fossils, that changed in 2014 when a team of scientists from Kansas discovered a complete fossil of its skull. Bhullar’s team then used advanced CT scanning techniques on the skull fossil, extracting its bones from the rock it was enclosed in, and coming up with a three-dimensional version of the animal’s skull.

After analyzing the CT scans and comparing them against earlier fossils, the researchers found that Ichthyornis was not unlike modern birds in the way it moved its beak, as it was able to lift its upper beak without having to move the rest of its skull. This, NPR added, allowed the ancient bird to be very “precise” when pinching and grabbing its prey, essentially using the beak as a “surrogate hand.”

Additionally, the researchers discovered another similarity between Ichthyornis dispar and modern birds — the proportion of its brain to the size of its body. This is in contrast to velociraptors and other dinosaurs whom birds are believed to have evolved from, where the animals had tiny brains in relation to their body. According to Bhullar, this was an especially peculiar finding, as he and other scientists were of the belief that birds’ jaws would shrink as they evolved, to compensate for their brains getting larger.

Commenting on the study, University of Edinburgh professor Steve Brusatte, who did not take part in the research, told BBC News that the paper is a “game-changer” in terms of how we understand how bird’s beaks and brains evolved. He believes the research backs up the theory that the evolution of bird-like dinosaurs to birds was a “long and gradual process,” while hinting at the presence of other dinosaur-bird hybrids during Ichthyornis‘ heyday in the Cretaceous Period.