'Wonderchicken' fossil could help reveal how modern birds evolved

Pablo Tucker
March 20, 2020

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).

A team of researchers has found and identified the oldest fossil of a modern bird.

"We report a new crown bird from the Late Cretaceous of Belgium", the authors declare in the new study.

Artist's reconstruction of the Wonderchicken, or Asteriornis maastrichtensis. This, the scientists believe, hints that the Wonderchicken is the last common ancestors of both bird groups. Super early birds, like Archaeopteryx, Fukuipteryx, and Jeholornis, emerged between 145 million and 120 million years ago during the Jurassic, but these feathered avian dinosaurs scarcely resemble the birds who now hang out in our backyards.

Despite plenty of work being done by paleontologists around the globe, much of the history of modern birds remains unknown.

Many scientists have been fascinated by the diversity of modern bird species. "The only evidence we'll find on how, when and where modern birds got going is in the fossil record", he points out. As a effect, scientists don't have a great understanding of the oldest modern birds, including their ecological circumstances, habitat, and immediate descendants.

But the relatives of this pint-sized creature-a newly described fossil cheekily dubbed "Wonderchicken"-lived on, helping to seed the enduring, diverse lineage of birds that still fills the skies of the modern world".

Three-dimensional image of the skull of the world's oldest modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis.

While the fossil is colloquially known as Wonderchicken, researchers have given it the slightly more elegant name of Asteriornis maastrichtensis, in reference to Asteria, the Greek Titan goddess of falling stars, and Maastricht, where it was found. "The fact that it comes from Europe gives people in the Northern Hemisphere a lot of hope". They said it combines many features common to the group in the animal kingdom, called Galloanserae, that includes modern day chickens and ducks.

Asteriornis was relatively small, weighing a smidge under 400 grams (0.88 pounds). In an email to Gizmodo, Field said this bird would be roughly equal in size to some of the world's smallest ducks and nearly identical in size to the green-winged teal, a common duck found in North America. Its legs were long and slender, and it was evidently a shore bird and it could probably fly, Field said. "This is interesting because the fossil was found in rocks that were laid down in a shallow marine environment". Though more fossils may someday change the story, the new findings hint that birds may have acquired some important traits in just the nick of time-just hundreds of thousands of years before that fateful space rock smashed into Earth.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs, but precisely when they evolved into birds like the ones alive today has been hard to answer.

The team says the discovery also pushes back the date of the earliest-known modern bird.

It's not clear how some organisms made it through the catastrophe that wiped out 80 percent of species on Earth 66 million years ago.

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