Quirks & Quarks

'Wonderchicken' walked among the dinosaurs just before the mass extinction

Thought to be the oldest modern bird fossil, the 66.7 million-year-old "Wonderchicken" may help scientists understand more about the rise of birds and why they survived the mass extinction.

The fossil may shed some new light on why birds survived

Researcher Daniel J. Field holds a life-size 3D print of the skull of Wonderchicken, in Cambridge, England. (Daniel J. Field/University of Cambridge/The Associated Press)
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The tiny fossil of the world's oldest known modern bird has been identified by scientists at the University of Cambridge. 

Dubbed "Wonderchicken," this 66.7 million-year-old ancestor of modern birds — dating back to the age of the dinosaurs — looked like a chicken and about half the size of a modern duck. 

For scientists, including Daniel J. Field, a Canadian paleontologist at the University of Cambridge in England, the bird (given the scientific name Asteriornis maastrichtensis) is an indication that modern bird evolution was still in its early stages when the asteroid struck, wiping out most plant and animal life on Earth.

Field and his colleagues are hopeful that the "Wonderchicken" fossil may shed some new light on why birds survived.

An illustration of Wonderchicken's skull. (Phillip Krzeminski)

Discovered in Belgium 20 years ago, the fossil was not considered to be anything too special — just a handful of broken limb bones sticking out of four small blocks of rock.

But after a recent CT scan, Field realized he was looking at what he refers to as one of the most incredible fossil bird skulls in the world.

He knew right away from the lack of teeth that he was looking at an early modern bird. The fossil also has long, slender legs, which suggest "Wonderchicken" was a shorebird. 

His findings are published in the journal Nature.