The earliest known fossil of a modern bird has been discovered in Europe. The near-complete skull was found near the Dutch-Belgian border and dates back to 66.7 million years ago, meaning this bird existed alongside dinosaurs before the cretaceous extinction that wiped out 75 percent of all species on Earth at that time.
As reported in Nature, Asteriornis maastrichtensis has characteristics similar to modern landfowl and waterfowl, in particular ducks and chickens. The "Wonderchicken" as it has affectionately been dubbed would have been small, the authors estimate, weighing just 400 grams (0.88 pounds).
The fossil doesn’t appear impressive at first. To begin with, it just looks like a few leg bone fragments poking through a rock smaller than a fist. But thanks to high-resolution X-ray CT scans, researchers saw what lay within that rock: A nearly complete bird skull.
“The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career,” lead author Dr Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, said in a statement. “This is one of the best-preserved fossil bird skulls of any age, from anywhere in the world. We almost had to pinch ourselves when we saw it, knowing that it was from such an important time in Earth’s history.”
The skull, despite belonging to a completely different geological era, has characteristics that are perfectly recognizable in modern birds. A connection with poultry we are familiar with is obvious, according to the researchers.
“The origins of living bird diversity are shrouded in mystery — other than knowing that modern birds arose at some point towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, we have very little fossil evidence of them until after the asteroid hit,” explained co-author Albert Chen, a PhD student based at the University of Cambridge. “This fossil provides our earliest direct glimpse of what modern birds were like during the initial stages of their evolutionary history.”
Its discovery in a quarry on the Belgium-Dutch border was also unusual. “The late Cretaceous fossil record of birds from Europe is extremely sparse,” said co-author Dr John Jagt from the Natuurhistorische Museum Maastricht in the Netherlands. “The discovery of Asteriornis provides some of the first evidence that Europe was a key area in the early evolutionary history of modern birds.”
The scientific name Asteriornis maastrichtensis comes from the city of Maastricht, located near the quarry where the fossil was found, and Asteria, the Greek goddess of falling stars (who turned herself into a quail to escape an amorous Zeus). Extremely apt for a bird living just before an asteroid or comet hit our planet, ending the rule of dinosaurs.