Tiny fossil reveals what happened to birds after dinosaurs went extinct

Jul 11, 2017

By Carolyn Gramling

The fossils of a tiny bird found on Native American land in New Mexico are giving scientists big new ideas about what happened after most dinosaurs went extinct. The 62-million-year-old mousebird suggests that, after the great dino die-off, birds rebounded and diversified rapidly, setting the stage for today’s dizzying variety of feathery forms.

“This find may well be the best example of how an unremarkable fossil of an unremarkable species can have enormously remarkable implications,” says Larry Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens who was not involved in the research.

The newly discovered fossils, described online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are a scrappy collection of bits and pieces rather than a complete skeleton. But certain tell-tale characteristics—such as its fourth toe, which it could turn around forward or backward to help it climb or grasp—convinced the team that it was an ancient mousebird. Researchers unearthed the fossils in New Mexico on ancestral Navajo lands, in rocks dating to between 62.2 million and 62.5 million years old. They named the creature Tsidiiyazhi abini—Navajo for “little morning bird.” Its mousebird descendants—about the size of a sparrow and marked by their soft, grayish or brownish hairlike feathers—still dwell in trees in sub-Saharan Africa today.

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