Ancient Mesozoic bird: Offers vital clues to bird evolution

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A bizarre bird from the Mesozoic Era had a small, scythe-like beak with one tooth at its tip. Its fossil was found in Madagascar and hints at a lost world of ancient birds that paleontologists are only just starting to uncover.

Similar to tiny toucan

Measuring less than 9 centimetres and sporting a curved, deep bill, the bird would have looked a bit like a tiny toucan. The skull of this bird, called Falcatakely forsterae, was preserved in rock between 66 and 72 million years ago.

The fossil was discovered in a block of stone quarried out of a rich fossil spot in Madagascar. In addition to some big dinosaur bones, the quarry where Falcatakely was found also yielded some small bird bones

Most prehistoric birds, like their modern counterparts, were small and had delicate, hollow bones. The harshness of the fossilisation process destroyed more ancient birds than preserved them. Yet when conditions were just right, exceptional specimens like Falcatakely were locked in stone.

Extinct group

The fossil is paper-thin in places, but the beak, parts of the upper jaw and eye socket were preserved well enough to provide a detailed look at the bird’s profile. The bones mark Falcatakely as belonging to an extinct group of birds called enantiornithines that thrived during the Cretaceous Period.

When the bird was alive, Falcatakely shared its relatively dry habitat with herbivorous, pig-like crocodiles, carnivorous, stubby-armed dinosaurs and badger-sized mammals. Falcatakely fits that oddball menagerie, the weirdness of which was probably spurred by Madagascar’s isolation after the island split off from India 88 million years ago

Falcatakely forsterae

Member of an extinct group called Enantiornithines — the first group to resemble modern birds

Cranium and upper jaw similar to non-flying dinosaurs such as T.Rex

Overall shape of face similar to modern birds

Complex series of grooves in the bones on side of face indicates expansive keratinous beak

About the size of a modern crow

Discovered: Mahajanga region, Madagascar

Artist’s impression based on skull find. Credit: Mark Witton


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