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Model of hatched dinosaurs eggs

This article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2020 edition of New Humanist. Subscribe today.

We know that birds are the last remaining descendants of dinosaurs, the lucky survivors of the asteroid strike that wiped out three quarters of life on Earth 66 million years ago. But the early evolutionary history of our feathered friends has remained shrouded in mystery. Palaeontologists have long debated whether the earliest modern birds walked alongside dinosaurs or evolved from a more dinosaur-like common ancestor after the asteroid struck.

In the last decade, DNA and fossil record evidence has strongly supported the view that three groups of early modern birds did indeed evolve prior to the asteroid collision. Whilst their tree-dwelling cousins appear to have been wiped out, evidence points to the survival of species more at home in scrubland or sea. Further evidence documents a boom in diversity of ancestral birds arising from the post-asteroid devastation, laying the foundations of the incredible diversity of species we enjoy today.

But many questions remained unanswered. A recent paper, published in the journal Nature and led by palaeontologists at the University of Cambridge, has uncovered the earliest known evidence of a modern bird species living side by side with dinosaurs in late Cretaceous Europe. The scientists used modern CT-scanning technology to expose their exceptional find inside a piece of rock the size of a deck of cards. The specimen had first been unearthed by a group of amateur hunters in Belgium 20 years ago.

The lead author called the fossil, which is the oldest and best preserved skull of modern birds ever found, and the only example in the northern hemisphere, the “discovery of a lifetime”.

The bird lived 66.7 million years ago and would have weighed about 400g. Its long slender legs suggests it was likely to have been shore-dwelling. With features described as a “mash up” between a chicken and a duck, the researchers have affectionately named the fossil the “wonderchicken”. Its official name is Asteriornis maastrichtensis, after the god of falling stars, Asteria, who turned into a quail and threw herself into the ocean to avoid Zeus.