Scientists Find the First Bird Beak, Right Under Their Noses

A prehistoric bird.

A prehistoric bird. (Image: Michael Hanson via Yale University)

Researchers have pieced together the three-dimensional skull of an iconic toothed bird that represents a pivotal moment in the transition from dinosaurs to modern-day birds, the first bird beak. Ichthyornis dispar holds a key position in the evolutionary trail that leads from dinosaurian species to today’s avians.

It lived nearly 100 million years ago in North America, looked something like a toothy seabird, and drew the attention of such famous naturalists as Yale’s O.C. Marsh (who first named and described it) and Charles Darwin. Yet despite the existence of partial specimens of Ichthyornis dispar, there has been no significant new skull material beyond the fragmentary remains first found in the 1870s.

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Fossil reconstruction and illustration of Ichthyornis dispar.
Fossil reconstruction and illustration of Ichthyornis dispar. (Image: Michael Hanson via Yale University)

Now, a Yale-led team reports on new specimens with three-dimensional cranial remains — including one example of a complete skull and two previously overlooked cranial elements that were part of the original specimen at Yale — that reveal new details about one of the most striking transformations in evolutionary history. Yale paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, the principal investigator of a study published in the journal Nature, stated:

What the bird’s beak looked like

Perhaps most interesting of all, Bhullar said, is that Ichthyornis dispar shows us what the bird’s beak looked like as it first appeared in nature. Bhullar, who is an assistant professor explained:

The research team conducted its analysis using CT-scan technology, combined with specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas; the Alabama Museum of Natural History; the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute; and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

Life reconstruction of the toothed stem bird Ichthyornis dispar showing that the first form of the avian beak was a precision pincer-tip probably used for fine manipulation.
Life reconstruction of the toothed stem bird Ichthyornis dispar showing that the first form of the avian beak was a precision pincer tip probably used for fine manipulation. (Image: via Michael Hanson and Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar)

Co-lead authors of the new study are Daniel Field of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath and Michael Hanson of Yale. Co-authors are David Burnham of the University of Kansas, Laura Wilson and Kristopher Super of Fort Hays State University, Dana Ehret of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and Jun Ebersole of the McWane Science Center. Field said:

The researchers said their findings offer new insight into how modern birds’ skulls eventually formed. Along with its transitional beak, Ichthyornis dispar had a brain similar to modern birds, but a temporal region of the skull that was strikingly like that of a dinosaur — indicating that during the evolution of birds, the brain transformed first, while the remainder of the skull remained more primitive and dinosaur-like, Hanson said:

In recent years, Bhullar’s lab has produced a large body of research on various aspects of vertebrate skulls, often zeroing in on the origins of the avian beak. Bhullar said:

Provided by: Yale University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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