St. Paul, Minn. — The discovery of a 66-million year old bird in Madagascar adds a new twist in the evolution of skulls and beaks in birds, and for one Macalester professor, it offers a new clue as to how so many ancient animals that lived in this region met their demise. An international team of researchers that includes Dr. Raymond Rogers, DeWitt Wallace Professor and chair of the geology department, announced the discovery today in the journal Nature.

The new bird is named Falcatakely, a combination of Latin and Malagasy words inspired by the specimen’s unusual, sickle-shaped beak and small, crow-sized body. Falcatakely is known from a single well-preserved, nearly complete skull, and is the second Cretaceous bird species discovered in Madagascar by the team, whose 25-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society. 

“This specimen shows how evolution has built bird beaks in different ways,” said Dr. Rogers. 

In modern birds, the snout is mostly formed by a single enlarged bone called the premaxilla. In contrast, most birds from the Age of Dinosaurs have relatively simple snouts with a small premaxilla and a large maxilla. Surprisingly, the researchers found this arrangement of bones in the snout of Falcatakely, but with a scythe-like beak shape reminiscent of modern birds like toucans and hornbills. Falcatakely had a decidedly modern-shaped bird beak, but it was built in ancient bird fashion.

What’s more, said Dr. Rogers, is that the site in northwestern Madagascar where this new fossil was discovered also includes numerous other as yet undescribed bird specimens. 

“To find bird fossils of this quality and to find so many together is almost unheard of,” he said. In his role as lead geologist, Prof. Rogers’ work focuses on the nature of the ancient ecosystem and the ways that fossils like this one get preserved. 

Birds have thin, fragile, bones that make them exceedingly rare in the fossil record. Bird skulls are even harder to find.  Luckily, the skull of Falcatakely was buried in a muddy debris flow around 66-68 million years ago. 

“The abundance of dead birds in this one fossil locality indicates that something significant happened that dropped birds in their tracks,” said Dr. Rogers. “This could be the key piece of evidence as we work to untangle what was killing animals again and again in ancient Madagascar.”

November 25 2020

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