Now the oldest known member of the contemporary branch of the avian family tree, Wonderchicken (formally Asteriornis maastrichtensis) could help today's paleontologists better understand how birds weathered the extinction that purged three-quarters of all plant and animal species from the surface of the Earth.
They used high-resolution X-ray scanning to peer through the rock and view the skull. The skull of the bird is nearly complete, and it features numerous traits that can be spotted among modern chickens and birds with bills. It was found in a limestone quarry located in the proximity of the Belgian-Dutch border, and it has an age of 66.7 million years, according to initial tests. What they saw proved to be the find of a lifetime: a near-complete 66.7-million-year-old bird skull.
The researchers hope that "wonderchicken" will give new light into how birds first emerged, largely surviving the aforementioned asteroid, and how they became as diverse as they are today.
"Until we CT scanned some rocks with poorly preserve bird limb bones poking out, we had no idea how spectacular this new fossil was", says Daniel Field, a paleobiologist at the University of Cambridge and first author on the new study. "Therefore, we think Asteriornis may have prowled the ancient shorelines of Europe, which at the time would have had beaches similar to what we see in the Bahamas - the world was much warmer at the time!"
Meanwhile, a 46,000 years old bird was so well preserved by the fossil hunters that they tricked scientists into believing that it had died a day ago.
"The ability to CT scan fossils, like we can at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, has completely transformed how we study palaeontology in the 21st century".
"Without these cutting-edge scans, we never would have known that we were holding the oldest modern bird skull in the world". Clearly, some ancestors of modern birds did, and paleontologists have some theories about what those ancient relatives must have been like in order to survive.
As always, the search continues for more fossils, as scientists try to piece together the details of this fascinating and important stage in the evolution of birds.
"We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact", said co-author Dr. Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The researchers have named this newly discovered species Asteriornis maastrichtensis, after the Titan goddess of falling stars, Asteria; the story goes that she turned herself into a quail to escape a threat. "The late Cretaceous fossil record of birds from Europe is extremely sparse", said co-author Dr John Jagt of the Natuurhistorische Museum Maastricht in The Netherlands.
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