How Prehistoric Birds Dealt With Fish Bones

Scientists in China have found a bird fossil including a gastric pellet containing fish bones—evidence of modern avian digestive features.

AsianScientist (May 11, 2016) – In a paper published in Current Biology, researchers in China reported a new fish-eating bird from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota of China. This specimen preserves a gastric pellet that includes fish bones and is the oldest birds’ pellet, dating back to 120 million years ago. This finding provides evidence of modern avian digestive features in the Early Cretaceous enantiornithine birds.

Enantiornithes are the most successful branch of Mesozoic birds, representing the sister group of the Ornithuromorpha, which gave rise to living birds. Nevertheless, the feeding habits of enantiornithines have remained unknown because of a lack of fossil evidence. In contrast, exceptionally preserved fossils reveal that derived avian features were present in the digestive systems of some non-enantiornithine birds with ages exceeding 125 million years.

Led by Dr. Wang Min from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the research team collected the enantiornithine bird from the Lower Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation in Liaoning Province, northeastern China.

It was assigned to Enantiornithes due to a combination of characteristics; a detailed morphological study of the new specimen is in preparation and will be presented in a separated paper.

Modern birds differ from their dinosaur ancestors in lacking teeth and heavy, bony jaws, having evolved a lightly-built beak and a specialized digestive system capable of processing unchewed food.

Researchers observed a spindle-shaped cluster of fish bones that was overlapped by the right humerus. The bones include vertebrae, neural spines, and unidentifiable fragments. They are most likely attributable to the teleost Lycoptera, the most abundant fish at this locality.

Researchers believed that the spindle-shaped structure was a pellet regurgitated by the bird shortly before, or even at, the time of death. This conclusion is reinforced by the sharp boundary between the brown matrix enclosing the densel concentrated fish bones and the white host matrix of the slab, which implies that the spindle-shaped structure was cohesive and well defined like the pellets of modern birds. Because of these characteristics and the lack of fish bones elsewhere on the slab, the aggregation is unlikely to be a preservational artifact.

This new enantiornithine, like many modern piscivores (fish eaters) and raptors, seems to have swallowed its prey whole and regurgitated indigestible materials such as bones, invertebrate exoskeletons, scales, and feathers. This finding provides the first evidence that some enantiornithine birds were piscivorous and that distinctive features of modern avian digestive system were well established in some Early Cretaceous birds.

“This fossil represents the oldest unambiguous record of an avian gastric pellet and the only such record from the Mesozoic,” said Wang.

“The pellet points to a fish diet and suggests that the alimentary tract of the new enantiornithine resembled that of extant avians in having efficient antiperistalsis and a two-chambered stomach with a muscular gizzard capable of compacting indigestible matter into a cohesive pellet.”

“The inferred occurrence of these advanced features in an enantiornithine implies that they were widespread in Cretaceous birds and likely facilitated dietary diversification within both Enantiornithes and Ornithuromorpha,” said co-corresponding author Professor Zhou Zhonghe.

The article can be found at: Wang et al. (2016) A Fish-Eating Enantiornithine Bird from the Early Cretaceous of China Provides Evidence of Modern Avian Digestive Features.


Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences.
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