The discovery of a creature described as a “toucan with teeth” that lived about 68 million years ago has influenced speculation about the diversity of birds that lived with dinosaurs.
With a length of less than nine centimeters (3.5 inches), the delicate skull of the scientific birds was named Falcatakely forsterae can be easily ignored.
In fact, it was almost sitting in an abundance of excavated fossils for years before the CT scan suggested that the specimen deserved more attention.
It turns out that his tall, hair-like beak, though resembling a toucan, is something never seen before in fossils.
Birds in the Mesozoic era – between 250 million and 65 million years ago – had “relatively unspecialized muzzles,” Patrick O’Connor, lead author of a study on the new creature, told AFP.
“Falcatakely just changed the game completely, documenting a long, tall beak unlike anything known in the Mesozoic,” added O’Connor, a professor of anatomy and neurology at Ohio State University.
The skull described in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggested other surprises.
While Falcatakely would have a face familiar to us from such modern birds as toucans and cuckolds, the bones that make up his face bear little resemblance to these modern creatures.
“Despite the overall shape of the face, similar to modern birds such as toucans, the underlying skeleton is much more similar to dinosaurs than non-avian theropods such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor,” O’Connor said.
This “turns upside down what we know about the anatomy of Mesozoic birds.”
“Almost comical profile”
Discovering these features was not an easy task.
The fossil was first collected in 2010 in northwestern Madagascar.
When the researchers finally turned their attention to it seven years later, they encountered a problem: the skull and beak were too fragile to be extracted for examination.
So the team used high-resolution imaging and digital modeling to “practically dissect” the bones.
They then used 3D printers to reconstruct the skull and compare it to other known species.
What they found was an almost touchingly amazing animal, according to Daniel Field of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, who reviewed the study for Nature.
It is not just the unexpected account, but the fact that the beak in the fossil is tilted with one preserved tooth, probably one of the many that birds would have.
“These features give Falcatakely’s skull an almost comical profile – imagine a creature resembling a tiny toucan with long teeth,” Field wrote.
None of the approximately 200 bird species known from the period “have a skull resembling something like Falcatakely,” he added.
For O’Connor, the discovery is evidence of the potentially huge gaps that remain in our knowledge of the birds that lived with the dinosaurs.
“There is a period of over 50 million years in which we know almost nothing about the evolutionary history of birds,” he said.
The discovery of intact fossils of birds from the period is relatively rare, as their light skeletons are usually too delicate to be well preserved.
The research team working in the Madagascar region, where Falcatakely has been discovered since the mid-1990s, is continuing the excavations and O’Connor is excited about what can still be discovered.
He also hopes to find out why Falcatakely had the beak he made.
“Is it related to food processing? Acquisition of prey? Has it been used as a signal by other members of the species? Many questions remain,” O’Connor said.
© Agence France-Presse