‘Wonderchicken’ fossil from the age of dinosaurs reveals origin of modern birds

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It represents the oldest-known anatomically modern bird, sharing skull traits with today's landfowl like chickens, turkeys, quail and pheasants as well as waterfowl like ducks, geese and swans.

Paleontologists have concluded that feathered, nicknamed the "wonder chicken" was a close relative of the last common ancestor of modern chickens and ducks.

Living just before the asteroid strike that wiped out giant dinosaurs, the unique fossil, from about 67 million years ago, gives a glimpse into the dawn of modern birds.

"Until we CT scanned some rocks with poorly preserve bird limb bones poking out, we had no idea how spectacular this new fossil was", says Daniel Field, a paleobiologist at the University of Cambridge and first author on the new study.

"It's the only almost complete skull of a modern bird that we have, so far, from the age of dinosaurs and it's able to tell us quite a lot about the early evolutionary history of birds".

The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal Nature.

Birds are come down from dinosaurs, yet specifically when they advanced right into birds like the ones active today has actually been tough to address.

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It had the long slender legs of a shorebird, and a face like a chicken, according to the Cambridge University researchers, who found its ancient traces hidden away in rocks dug up at a Belgium quarry 20 years ago. Using high-resolution X-ray CT scans, the researchers then peered through the rock to see what was lying beneath the surface.

Artist's impression of the Wonderchicken.

We've known for some time now that birds are descended from meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, thanks to 'missing link' discoveries like 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx - it had features such as teeth (like its dinosaur ancestors did), but also feathers and wrist bones shared by modern birds. According to the scientists, the skull, despite its age, is clearly recognisable as a modern bird. Field described the skull as a kind of "mash-up" of a chicken and a duck.

"We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact", said co-author Dr. Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

While the scientists colloquially refer to the fossil as the Wonderchicken, they have given it the name of Asteriornis, in reference to Asteria - the Greek Titan goddess of falling stars. "The only evidence we'll find on how, when and where modern birds got going is in the fossil record", he points out. "The discovery of Asteriornis provides some of the first evidence that Europe was a key area in the early evolutionary history of modern birds".

Scientists have identified the oldest fossil ever found of a modern bird.

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