‘Wonderchicken’ fossil reveals ancestor of today’s birds

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The team used high-resolution X-ray CT scans to investigate the fossil, which is embedded in a piece of rock about the same size as a deck of cards.

With high-resolution X-ray CT [computed tomography] scans, the researchers were stunned to find a almost complete bird skull only 1 millimeter beneath the rock's surface. What they saw proved to be the find of a lifetime: a near-complete 66.7-million-year-old bird skull.

Researchers have discovered "wonderchicken", a 67-million-year-old fossilized bird they believe is the first "modern bird". The discovery of this kind proves that Europe was a key area in the early evolutionary history of birds "new generation" (previously it was thought that they flew to other continents from Antarctica).

"This is a unique specimen: we've been calling it the "wonderchicken", said Dr Daniel Field of the University of Cambridge. "We nearly had to pinch ourselves when we saw it, knowing that it was from such an important time in Earth's history".

A fossil unearthed in Belgium dubbed the "Wonderchicken" is providing a rare glimpse into the early evolution of modern birds at the twilight of the age of dinosaurs, right before an asteroid impact altered the course of life on Earth.

"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".

One of the study's co-authors, Juan Benito, said finding the skull "blew my mind".

A 3D image of the skull of the oldest-known anatomically modern bird, which lived 66.7 million years ago.

The fossilized skull of the so-called "Wonderchicken" is remarkably well-preserved, giving the researchers a wealth of information about how the ancient species compares to modern-day birds. Thus, the upper and back part of the skull of asterions structurally resemble those of modern ducks, while the front part and the beak is similar to those seen in chickens and turkeys.

Asteriornis provides clues as to which factors may have helped some birds survive the asteroid impact while others perished, said palaeontologist and study co-author Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The fossil bird has actually been called Asteriornis maastrichtensis, after Asteria, a Greek siren of dropping celebrities that becomes a quail.

Scientists do know that crown birds emerged during the ensuing Cretaceous period, but these animals are poorly represented in the fossil record.

According to Field, the fossil reveals that that early on, at least some modern birds were fairly small-bodied, ground-dwelling birds that lived near the seashore. "Hopefully it ushers in a new era of fossil finds that help clarify how, when and where modern birds first evolved".

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