Scientists have discovered the fossil of an extinct animal that may represent the oldest known example of a "modern" bird.
According to the magazine Newsweek, the team of paleontologists identified the almost complete skull of this bird, between 66.8 and 66.7 million years old (before the cataclysmic impact of the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs).
Nicknamed Asteriornis maastrichtensis, the extinct bird – affectionately nicknamed the “wonder chicken” – shares some characteristics that can still be seen today in modern ducks and chickens, according to the study published this Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
"We believe that characteristics such as its relatively small size, the fact that it lives on the ground, its ability to fly and the generalized diet were the main attributes that favored the survival of modern birds after the impact of the asteroid", tells Daniel Field magazine , a researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the study's authors.
"We have known for some time that the early stages of the evolutionary history of modern birds occurred at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, but we did not have much direct evidence for modern birds in the fossils of that era."
"Asteriornis gives us the clearest evidence of what kind of modern birds really existed towards the end of that era, and it appears that only the first branches of the modern birds' family tree emerged when the asteroid collided."
According to Newsweek, the skull of this bird was found in a limestone quarry near the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, which is significant in itself, according to scientists.
“It is the first time that a fossil of a modern bird from the Age of Dinosaurs has been found in the northern hemisphere. The fact that it was found in Europe is incredibly exciting, because it suggests that future discoveries of even older modern birds may come from this continent. Until now, we were not sure whether modern birds had been present in Europe during that era, ”explains Field.
The scientific name A. maastrichtensis comes from Asteria, the name of a goddess from Greek mythology who became a quail.