Ancient bird with beak and teeth blended dinosaur, avian traits

WASHINGTON, May 2 (Reuters) - A primitive seabird that prospered about 85 million years ago along the warm, shallow inland sea that once split North America boasted what scientists are calling a surprising blend of traits from its dinosaur ancestors and modern avian characteristics.

Four new fossils of Ichthyornis, which had both a beak and teeth and lived a lifestyle like modern gulls, offer striking evidence of this Cretaceous Period bird's important position in avian evolutionary history, researchers said on Wednesday.

While Ichthyornis fossils were first unearthed in the 1870s, the new ones from Kansas and Alabama chalk deposits, including a beautifully preserved skull, reveal far more about it than previously known.

Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs. Unlike the earliest-known birds like Archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago, Ichthyornis was a strong flier, its body streamlined, simplified and adapted for flight like modern birds, Yale University paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar said.

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Discoveries dating back to the Cretaceous Period
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Discoveries dating back to the Cretaceous Period
The cleaned fossil head of a juvenile tarbosaurus, which is believed to have lived in the late Cretaceous Period, 70 million years ago, is shown in this undated handout photo distributed by the Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science in Okayama, western Japan July 23, 2008. A team of Japanese and Mongolian researchers discovered the nearly perfectly-preserved fossil of a young dinosaur in the Gobi Desert in 2006 and unveiled it in Japan on Wednesday. REUTERS/Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science/Handout (JAPAN). FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
A visitor looks at a replica of a dinosaur (Abelisaurus comahuensis) during the "Giants of Patagonia" exhibition in Belgrade June 24, 2009. Also on display at the exhibition are the complete skeletons of seven dinosaurs, which include a 14-meter-long Gigantosaurus and a 17-meter-long Rebbachisaurus herbivore from the Cretaceous period. REUTERS/Ivan MIlutinovic (SERBIA SOCIETY)
An ammonite fossil from the cretaceous period is pictured during a news conference at the Obispado museum in Monterrey, northern Mexico, January 21, 2009. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has finished the identification process of some 400 fossils seized from a store in 2006, in what anthropologists say is the most important paleontological retrieval in the country due to the quantity and variety amassed. The fossils include the remains of mammoths, dinosaurs, camels, horses, sharks and ammonites. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo (MEXICO)
Jaw remains of a plant-eating Cretaceous Period dinosaur discovered in Dakhla Oasis, are seen in the town of El Mansoura in the delta north of Cairo, Egypt February 3, 2018. Picture taken February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A visitor touches the original fossilised femur of a dinosaur displayed on exhibition at the Egidio Feruglio Museum in the Argentina's Patagonian city of Trelew, May 18, 2014. According to the palaeontologists Jose Luis Carballido and Ruben Cuneo, the fossils are that of a sauropod and preliminary tests dates the fossils at some 90 million years old. The scientists said the dinosaur could be 130 feet long and 65 feet tall, and weigh at 85 tons, and it is a previously undiscovered species of titanosaur, an herbivore, which lived during the Late Cretaceous period. REUTERS/Maxi Jonas (ARGENTINA - Tags: ANIMALS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
One of the more than 250 ancient trackways is visible at the Cal Orcko dinosaur track site, inside the FANCESA cement quarry in Sucre, Bolivia, August 7, 2006. The site, consisting of a limestone wall covered with the tracks of at least six types of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, is the largest dinosaur track site known in the world today. REUTERS/David Mercado (BOLIVIA)
The fossilised bones of a juvenile tarbosaurus, which is believed to have lived in the Cretaceous Period, 70 million years ago, is shown still embedded in the rock in which it was discovered in this undated handout photo distributed by the Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science in Okayama, western Japan July 23, 2008. A team of Japanese and Mongolian researchers discovered the nearly perfectly-preserved fossil of a young dinosaur in the Gobi desert in 2006 and unveiled it in Japan on Wednesday. REUTERS/Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science/Handout (JAPAN). FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
The cleaned fossil of a toe from the hind leg of a juvenile tarbosaurus (bottom), which is believed to have lived in the late Cretaceous Period, 70 million years ago, is shown in comparison to a fossil from an adult in this undated handout photo distributed by the Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science in Okayama, western Japan July 23, 2008. A team of Japanese and Mongolian researchers discovered the nearly perfectly-preserved fossil of a child dinosaur in the Gobi Desert in 2006 and unveiled it in Japan on Wednesday. REUTERS/Hayashibara Museum of Natural Science/Handout (JAPAN). FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno stands in front of a replica of a newly discovered dinosaur at the National Geographic Society, May 16. The beast, known as Deltadromeus, is the smaller of two dinosaurs discovered in Africa which date back to the Cretaceous period, some 65 to 100 million years ago
French amateur paleontologist Alain Cabot holds a fossilized dinosaur egg in southern France, near the Mediterranean port of Sete, March 6. Several thousand nests, each containing between 5 and 15 eggs were discovered over several acres. The dinosaur eggs date from the Cretaceous period and are 68 to 71 million years old.
A Chilean scientist looks at a 90 million-year old coral fossil outside the geological museum Humberto Fuenzalida Villegas in Antofagasta, March 18, 2002. The fossil was found during explorative studies in the desert of Atacama and belongs to the middle Cretaceous period.
Oviraptorosaur dinosaur skeleton cast from South Dakota Cretaceous period ROM Toronto. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Tubular crest of Parasaurolophus Hadrosaur dinosaur Alberta at ROM Toronto. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Hadrosaur Duckbill dinosaur skeleton from Alberta 70 million years old ROM Toronto. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - UNDATED: EXCLUSIVE. Kansas King Fish Fossil or Xiphactinus audux from the Upper Cretaceous found in the Niobrara Chalk Formation, Western Kansas. On May 27, 2010 Bonhams & Butterfields will be selling property from the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, Branson, Missouri. One of the feature lots has to be this amazing complete fossil of a Kansas king fish from the upper cretaceous period. The estimated value is 150,000 - 200,000 USD. (Photo by GB / Barcroft Media / Getty Images)
A visitor looks at a replica of a dinosaur (Abelisaurus comahuensis) during the "Giants of Patagonia" exhibition in Belgrade June 24, 2009. Also on display at the exhibition are the complete skeletons of seven dinosaurs, which include a 14-meter-long Gigantosaurus and a 17-meter-long Rebbachisaurus herbivore from the Cretaceous period. REUTERS/Ivan MIlutinovic (SERBIA SOCIETY)
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Its primitive characteristics were largely in its skull.

"Despite the modernity of its body and wings, it retained almost a full complement of dinosaurian teeth, and it had a strong bite with large, dinosaurian jaw muscles. However, it perceived its world and thought like a bird, with a bird's enormous eyes and expanded, modern-looking brain," Bhullar added.

While older primitive birds like Confuciusornis, from 125 million years ago, sported a beak, the small one on Ichthyornis was the first known to have modern attributes like a "pincer tip" for grasping, pecking and fine manipulation.

"Its sharp teeth probably would have assisted in holding onto slippery marine prey, while the incipient beak at the tips of its jaws probably would have allowed it to manipulate objects with fine dexterity such as modern birds can do, and preen its feathers," University of Bath paleontologist Daniel Field said.

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Largest Dinosaur print found
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Largest Dinosaur print found
People stand next to a footprint made by a meat-eating predator some 80 million years ago and one of the largest of its kind ever found, at the Maragua Syncline, Bolivia, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
Paleontologist Sebastian Apesteguia measures the footprint made by a meat-eating predator some 80 million years ago and one of the largest of its kind ever found, at the Maragua Syncline, Bolivia, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
Visitors look at dinosaur footprints while visiting with a tour guide the Cal Orcko cliff in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
Paleontologist Sebastian Apesteguia touches a dinosaur's footprint at the Maragua Syncline, Bolivia, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
Visitors look at dinosaur footprints while visiting the Cal Orcko cliff in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
A man walks next to dinosaur footprints at the Maragua Syncline, Bolivia, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
Visitors look at dinosaur footprints while visiting the Cal Orcko cliff in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
Children play with the replica of a dinosaur fossil at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
A child walks up a playground climber with dinosaur footprints at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
A mother takes a photograph of her children while they pose in front of the replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
Children have a snack while sitting next to the replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
The replica of a Titanosaur is seen at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
Visitors walk underneath a replica of a Titanosaur at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
A visitor walks underneath a replica of a Titanosaur at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
The replica of a Titanosaur is seen at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
Visitors walk underneath a replica of a Titanosaur at the Cretaceous park in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado 
Paleontologist Sebastian Apesteguia measures the footprint made by a meat-eating predator some 80 million years ago and one of the largest of its kind ever found, at the Maragua Syncline, Bolivia, July 21, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
A truck unloads rocks next to the Cal Orko cliff where thousands of dinosaur's footprints can be seen, in Cal Orcko, on the outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia, July 22, 2016. REUTERS/David Mercado
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Ichthyornis was the size of a tern, with a two-foot wingspan, and probably ate fish and shellfish. It shared the skies with flying reptiles called pterosaurs when dinosaurs dominated the land. Toothed birds vanished along with the dinosaurs and many other species after an asteroid impact 66 million years ago.

Fossils like those of Ichthyornis and Cretaceous toothed diving bird Hesperornis were cited by 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin as strong support for his theory of evolution.

"Ichthyornis shows the ways in which evolution is both complex and elegant, permissive of individual changes and massive integrated transformations," Bhullar said.

The research was published in the journal Nature. (Reporting by Will Dunham Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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