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Attenborough’s 'strange bird' was the first known species of toothless birds

Birds in the modern world don’t have teeth. However, in the past, they did. This begs the question: when did toothless birds evolve, and how? A recent study published in Cretaceous Research introduces Imparavis attenboroughi, the first bird of its kind to evolve toothless-ness.

Also known as “Attenborough’s strange bird.” This incredibly important fossil bird discovery was named in tribute to Sir David Attenborough, marking a pivotal moment in avian evolution.

Evolutionary enigma of toothless birds

Birds today are known for their beak diversity, adapted to an array of diets and habitats, yet none possess teeth. This wasn’t always the case, as their early ancestors sported beaks brimming with teeth.

Imparavis attenboroughi stands out as a fascinating anomaly, being the first known species to evolve toothlessness, a trait that predates previous estimates by nearly 50 million years.

Sir David Attenborough, reflecting on this homage. “It is a great honour to have one’s name attached to a fossil, particularly one as spectacular and important as this. It seems the history of birds is more complex than we knew,” says Attenborough.

His response underscores the intricate tapestry of life that continues to unravel through paleontological research.

Enantiornithines and the tree of Life

Imparavis attenboroughi belonged to the enantiornithines, a group once flourishing across prehistoric skies, yet mysteriously extinct by the end of the Cretaceous period. These “opposite birds,” so-called for their unique shoulder anatomy, represent a diverse lineage that provides insights into the evolutionary journey from dinosaurs to the birds we see today.

Alex Clark, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, and the paper’s corresponding author, captures the imagination with a vivid depiction of encountering these creatures in ancient China.

“Enantiornithines are very weird. Most of them had teeth and still had clawed digits. If you were to go back in time 120 million years in northeastern China and walk around, you might have seen something that looked like a robin or a cardinal, but then it would open its mouth, and it would be filled with teeth, and it would raise its wing, and you would realize that it had little fingers,” explained Clark.

Significance of toothless birds

The revelation that Imparavis was toothless offers a fresh perspective on the adaptive strategies of ancient birds. Clark elaborates on the implications of this discovery, noting the earlier onset of edentulism in enantiornithines than previously thought.

“Scientists previously thought that the first record of toothlessness in this group was about 72 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous. This little guy, Imparavis, pushes that back by about 48 to 50 million years. So toothlessness, or edentulism, evolved much earlier in this group than we thought,” says Clark.

This adaptation may have influenced dietary habits, foraging behaviors, and perhaps even flight dynamics.

Jingmai O’Connor, Clark’s advisor and a co-author of the study, initially drawn to the fossil’s unique forelimb structure, spearheaded the research that confirmed the specimen as a new species. This collaborative effort, involving international researchers, underscores the importance of global scientific partnerships.

What toothlessness tells us about ancient bird life

Beyond its historical significance, the study of Imparavis attenboroughi and its relatives has contemporary relevance. O’Connor emphasizes the critical insights these ancient birds provide into the current biodiversity crisis, echoing Attenborough’s message on the urgency of addressing human-induced mass extinction.

“I think what drew me to the specimen wasn’t its lack of teeth — it was its forelimbs,” says O’Connor. “It had a giant bicipital crest — a bony process jutting out at the top of the upper arm bone, where muscles attach. I’d seen crests like that in Late Cretaceous birds, but not in the Early Cretaceous like this one. That’s when I first suspected it might be a new species.”

Understanding the factors that led to the survival of some species while others perished can inform conservation strategies in our present context.

“I like to think of these guys kind of acting like modern robins. They can perch in trees just fine, but for the most part, you see them foraging on the ground, hopping around and walking,” says Clark.

“It seems like most enantiornithines were pretty arboreal, but the differences in the forelimb structure of Imparavis suggests that even though it’s still probably lived in the trees, it maybe ventured down to the ground to feed, and that might mean it had a unique diet compared to other enantiornithines, which also might explain why it lost its teeth,” says O’Connor.

Implications for future biodiversity conservation

Clark and O’Connor’s work not only contributes to our understanding of avian evolution but also celebrates the influential role of Sir David Attenborough in inspiring generations of scientists. Their research serves as a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of preserving our planet’s biodiversity for future generations.

In summary, the discovery of Imparavis attenboroughi marks a significant leap in our understanding of avian evolution, revealing the early emergence of toothless birds and providing insights into the rich tapestry of life that existed millions of years ago.

This research, celebrating Sir David Attenborough’s legacy, deepens our comprehension of the intricate evolutionary paths that led to the birds we observe today while underscoring the importance of paleontology in addressing contemporary environmental challenges.

By examining the past, we unlock valuable lessons on survival, adaptation, and biodiversity, offering a beacon of hope and a call to action to conserve the delicate balance of life on our planet for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal Cretaceous Research.


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