Researchers note new Cretaceous species, by a nose

Flock together: Introducing a brand-new bird, the recently discovered Falcatakely, a Cretaceous Era contemporary of various well-known dinosaurs. (Illustration: Mark Witton)
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Welcome to Cretaceous Park!

And say hello to Falcatakely, a mouthful to be sure – and a bona fide missing link between modern birds and fine-feathered forbearers of eons past.

The crow-sized Falcatakely (a combination of Latin and Malagasy words inspired by the prehistoric creature’s small size and sickle-shaped beak) was discovered recently in Madagascar, with scientists from Stony Brook University and Ohio University using the latest 21st century tech to fill in a few blanks from 70 million years of avian evolution.

Essentially, the announcement of the new species is based on the rarest of archeological finds: a well-preserved, nearly complete bird skull. Fossilized bird skeletons are scarce because of their lightweight construction and miniscule size; bird skulls – let alone intact specimens – are rarer still.

Alan Turner: Time tunnel.

Starting with a single, virtually complete fossilized skull, researchers – armed with microCT scanners, rapid 3D printers and the latest digital-reconstruction tools – have determined certain characteristics of the Falcatakely (officially Falcatakely forsterae), including what SBU described as “a completely novel face shape in Mesozoic birds.”

The National Science Foundation-funded team was led by Alan Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at SBU’s Renaissance School of Medicine, and Patrick O’Connor, an Ohio University professor of anatomical sciences. It also involved scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Minnesota’s Macalaster College, University College London and the Université d’Antananarivo in Madagascar.

The international team’s findings were detailed this month in the peer-reviewed British science journal Nature. The upshots include deeper understandings of convergent evolution – wherein organisms with little in common independently evolve similar traits – and the progression of bird beaks and faces to modern norms.

“We don’t really know why certain beak shapes evolve,” noted Turner, credited as the study’s co-author. “But we do know they are used for a multitude of functions such as object manipulation, feather grooming, feeding and other life-sustaining behaviors.”

That was probably the case with Falcatakely, according to Turner, an expert in both specimen-based and theoretical research who focuses on anatomical reconstruction and phylogenetics, with a particular affinity for dinosaurs and crocodylomorphs.

“It is significant to discover that this early bird during the Cretaceous had such a uniquely evolved beak,” he added.

Gimme a beak: The uniquely nosed Falcatakely. (Illustration: Mark Witton)

Officially, the Falcatakely were part of the Enantiornithines, the most abundant and diverse group of avialans from the Mesozoic Era, which wrapped up the Cretaceous period about 65.5 million years ago – ending with the extinction of the dinosaurs – and stretches as far back as 145.5 million years.

The Enantiornithines largely resembled modern birds – except for razor teeth and clawed fingers on each wing – and are known predominantly from fossil discoveries throughout Asia.

This new work proves they also ran (or flew) in what is now Eastern Africa, alongside the velociraptor and the mighty Tyrannosaurus, according to Turner, who says the discovery of a new Enantiornithine species adds to “the first great diversification of early birds.”

O’Connor, the study’s lead author, said the Falcatakely revelation could change the way scientists think about the evolution of numerous bird species – and shows how much of our natural world remains undiscovered.

“Mesozoic birds with such high, long faces are completely unknown,” the Ohio University professor noted. “Falcatakely provides a great opportunity to reconsider ideas around head and beak evolution in the lineage leading to modern birds.

“The discovery of Falcatekely underscores that much of the deep history of the Earth is still shrouded in mystery,” O’Connor added. “Particularly from those parts of the planet that have been relatively less explored.”