Let’s get one thing straight: Birds are basically dinosaurs. When most of the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, some birds and bird-like dinosaurs were already around, and the descendants of those who survived the extinction event evolved into what we know as birds today. And while paleontologists have uncovered various fossils showing the evolution of feathers, beaks have been somewhat of a mystery — until now.
In a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature, a team of researchers present images of the animal that represents a link between unbeaked, toothy, feathered dinosaurs and beaked birds with no teeth. It’s called Ichthyornis dispar, and it lived almost 100 million years ago, which means it lived alongside the large reptiles that most people think of when we talk about dinosaurs. By piecing together CT scans of newly found specimens as well as several different specimens from existing museum collections, the scientists ended up with a fairly complete look at this toothed bird. What they found is that it shares a lot of anatomy with both birds and dinosaurs.
One of the fragments of Ichthyornis dispar skull the researchers examined for this study was found over a century ago, but scientists hadn’t put together the pieces of the puzzle until now. “Right under our noses this whole time was an amazing, transitional bird,” Yale paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, principal investigator on the study, said in a statement. “It has a modern-looking brain along with a remarkably dinosaurian jaw muscle configuration.” The researchers say it probably looked similar to modern-day gulls.
This study reveals that the transitional beak extended from the jaw and was covered in keratin, the material that makes up hair, horns, and modern bird beaks. Researchers suggest that the early beak provided the bird with much-needed grip. “The first beak was a horn-covered pincer tip at the end of the jaw,” says Bhullar. “The remainder of the jaw was filled with teeth. At its origin, the beak was a precision grasping mechanism that served as a surrogate hand as the hands transformed into wings.”
As paleontologists employ sophisticated imaging techniques to re-examine old fossil remains, new understandings of how dinosaurs and birds evolved will continue to emerge. For instance, we also know dinosaurs had wings before they could fly, so this research, in which we find that the earliest birds probably had teeth and shared some brain structures with dinosaurs, serves to underscore just how tightly interconnected birds and dinosaurs are — and that dinosaurs still walk and fly among us.
“The story of the evolution of birds, the most species-rich group of vertebrates on land, is one of the most important in all of history,” says Bhullar. “It is, after all, still the age of dinosaurs.”