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Dinosaurs Couldn't Sing But Ancient Birds Could Honk

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Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

An artist’s impression of V. iaai, with its syrinx highlighted, flying across the forested shorelines of Vega Island in Antarctica around 66 million years ago. Nicole Fuller/Sayo Art/University of Texas at Austin

For a long time, the idea that dinosaurs roar was based on a lot of speculation. Only recently, a study actually suggested that some may have been able to “coo”, much like their living descendants, the birds. Birds themselves began to evolve during the reign of the dinosaurs, but just like their “terrible lizard” relatives, it’s not entirely clear what they actually sounded like back then.

A brand new Nature paper has revealed that the oldest known vocal organ – one belonging to an ancient bird – has been dug up in Antarctica. This impeccably preserved syrinx is around 66 to 69 million years old, which means that its owner used it to squawk or honk alongside the very last non-avian dinosaurs in existence.

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In fact, as it’s the earliest vocal organ of its kind, its discoverers realized that the ability of birds to sing and call evolved quite late in their evolutionary history, right around the time the infamous asteroid-based apocalypse took place.

This particular vocal organ belonged to a specimen of Vegavis iaai, a Cretaceous-aged bird that was first found on Antarctica’s Vega Island in 1992. Only after a re-examination in 2013 was the fossil found to contain a syrinx.

The oldest-known voice box. NSF/University of Texas at Austin

An analysis of the intricate 3D structures within the vocal organ suggested that these enigmatic birds would not have been able to vocalize quite as musically as today’s birds, but they were well on their way. They probably would have sounded most like ducks or geese.

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“The origin of birds is about so much more than the evolution of flight and feathers,” co-author Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, said in a statement.

Back then, the world was far warmer, and the southern continent was covered in lush forests. V. iaai would have lived like modern waterfowl, floating on bodies of water and pecking at seafood.

Archaeopteryx, one of the earliest bird-like dinosaurs known to science, appeared in the fossil record around 150 million years ago, but there’s no evidence they sounded like contemporary avian creatures. It now appears that it took another 84 million years for the first syrinxes to evolve.

Significantly, thanks to their extremely close evolutionary lineages, this bird syrinx can give paleontologists an insight into what noises their plodding, ferocious cousins may have made from their gaping maws. Sadly, with no evidence of a syrinx within any co-existing dinosaurs, it’s unlikely that dinosaurs could ever “sing”.

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“To speculate wildly, we might have closed-mouth booms more similar to crocodilians in large-bodied dinosaurs like T. rex,” Clarke added. “But in the late Cretaceous, the sounds of the forest would be more diverse, possibly with the higher pitched calls of modern bird relatives.”

This study provides yet another stunning revelation that the age of the dinosaurs was even more biodiverse than anyone previously imagined. At the time V. iaai roamed the skies of Antarctica, cat-sized dwarf pterosaurs flew alongside far more gigantic ones, and benign leaf-eating titanosaurs up to 20 meters (66 feet) tall and 30 meters (98 feet) long stalked the plains in herds.

Just recently, a panel of conservationists and biologists produced a white paper declaring that the resurrection of long-dead beasts is a good idea, but only if they died recently. This rules out the de-extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, which is a great shame – apart from nixing the chances of Jurassic Park becoming a reality, it also means we’ll likely never know what they truly sounded like.

Comparing V. iaai with an Arcosauria – a group of creatures containing all extinct dinosaurs and birds – and a modern alligator. Each would have very different vocalizations, and only the birds developed a syrinx. NSF/University of Texas at Austin


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natureNature
  • tag
  • birds,

  • antarctica,

  • sound,

  • vocal cords,

  • vocal organs,

  • quack,

  • honk

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