This Stiff-Necked 'Wonderchicken' Is Possibly the Oldest Modern Bird Fossil

Modern birds may have descended from a 'wonderchicken' that survived an asteroid apocalypse, new fossils show.
Brad Bergan

In an age of vicious dinosaurs, a tiny avian creature — the size of a little duck — survived amid the prehistoric carnage on what would eventually become a European seashore, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge.


Ancient bird fossil mixes prehistoric with modern

The creature had long, shorebird-like legs and the face of a chicken, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who found traces of its ancient life buried in rocks unearthed at a quarry in Belgium, 20 years ago.

"The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career," said Daniel Field, an evolutionary palaeobiologist.

CT scans revealed that the prehistoric bird's skull and leg bone fragments date back up to 66.8 million years ago — the oldest evidence yet possessed of a modern bird. The researchers named the new species of ancient bird Asteriornis maastrichtensis, as a namesake for the Titan goddess of falling stars, Asteria. According to myth, she turned herself into a quail to survive threatening circumstances.

Field and colleagues analyzed the structures of the bird fossils and found they showed a combination of distinct features also seen in modern waterfowl, like ducks and landfowl like quails and chickens. This means A. maastrichtensis could be a common ancestor to both animal groups.

Birds of the right feather stuff

Scientists have known for a long time that birds are descended from meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, thanks to the crucial discoveries of "missing links" like the 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx — which displayed features both unsettling (dinosaur teeth) and familiar (feathers and wrist bones of modern birds).

However, there was little evidence of when modern birds came into existence. Until now.

"The origins of living bird diversity are shrouded in mystery — other than knowing that modern birds arose at some point towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, we have very little fossil evidence of them until after the asteroid hit," said paleontologist Albert Chen, reports ScienceAlert.

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When the big rock fell from the sky and ended the Cretaceous period with violent finality 66 million years ago, this "wonderchicken" (or some of its close relatives) somehow managed to survive the maddening blast and produce what evolved into the mesmerizing spectrum of birds we know and gratuitously feed today.

However, back in the dinosaur apocalypse, creatures like the teethed Icthyornis-like bird ancestors — also found in the quarry — perished.

It's easy to think of dinosaurs as an extinct — albeit formidable — predator of mammals, the latter of whom were simply better at surviving into the present day. But the on-site exploration of ancient fossils has shown that the ancestors of birds carried on, despite what felt like the end of the world. At the very least, it's aspirational.