A dinosaur-era chook with a scythe-like beak illuminates the range of birds

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© Reuters. Artist's reconstruction of the Falcatakely forsterae bird

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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A delicate but exquisitely preserved skull of a crow-sized bird with a scythe-like beak that lived in Madagascar 68 million years ago shows scientists that they learned a great deal about bird diversity in the age of the dinosaurs.

Scientists said Wednesday the bird, dubbed Falcatakely forsterae, has a face like no other known bird from the dinosaur era – the Mesozoic era – not only because of its beak shape, but also because of its underlying anatomy.

Its beak looked superficially like that of a small toucan, although the two species are not closely related. While modern birds have a wide variety of beak shapes – from sword-billed hummingbirds to hornbills – hardly any such diversity was discovered in Mesozoic birds.

Falcatakely's 9 cm skull remains partially embedded in rock as the scientists didn't want to risk damaging it. Instead, they analyzed it with sophisticated scanning and digital reconstruction. Only his skull was found.

"Amazing, small, delicate, fragile, challenging to study – all at the same time," said Ohio University anatomy professor Patrick O'Connor, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

"Bird fossils are particularly rare because they have such delicate skeletons. Hollow bones cannot survive the fossilization process well," added paleontologist and study co-author Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York.

"For this reason, we must be aware that we are unlikely to be adequately exploring the Mesozoic diversity of birds. A newly discovered species like Falcatakely offers a taste of the tantalizing possibility of a greater variety of shapes waiting to be discovered," said Turner .

Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. Early risers retained many ancestral traits, including teeth. The Falcatakely fossil has a single conical tooth in the front part of the upper jaw. Falcatakely probably had a small number of teeth in life.

It belonged to a group of birds, the enantiornithins, which did not survive the mass extinction 66 million years ago and ended the Cretaceous period.

"Unlike the earliest birds like Archeopteryx, which, with their long tails and unspecialized snouts, still looked like dinosaurs in many ways, enantiornithins like Falcatakely would have looked relatively modern," Turner said.

O & # 39; Connor added that the differences in the underlying skeletal structure were more evident and dinosaurs like Velociraptor were more similar than modern birds.

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