Asteriornis: Oldest crown bird fossil yet discovered? No.

Updated May 19, 2021
with a revised reconstruction of Asteriornis, and the addition of a close relative, the giant flightless goose, Cnemiornis. Click here to see the update.

Taxon exclusion
is the problem here. Still, it’s a wonderful and rare 3D bird fossil.

Figure 1. Asteriornis, a 3D bird fossil from the Latest Cretaceous, now nests with Cnemiornis, a giant flightless goose, in the LRT.
Figure 1. Asteriornis, a 3D bird fossil from the Latest Cretaceous, now nests with Cnemiornis, a giant flightless goose, in the LRT.

Writing in Nature, Field et al. 2020
bring us a new latest Cretaceous bird, Asteriornis (Fig. 1).The authors report, “The fossil represents one of the only well-supported crown birds from the Mesozoic era, and is the first Mesozoic crown bird with well-represented cranial remains.The fossil is between 66.8 and 66.7 million years old—making it the oldest unambiguous crown bird fossil yet discovered.”

The authors note,
“The general appearance of the premaxillary beak resembles that of extant Galliformes, particularly in its gently down-curved tip and delicate construction, with no ossified joints among the rostral components.”

Figure 2. Cnemiornis skull in three views. Compare to latest Cretaceous Asteriornis in figure 3.
Figure 2. Cnemiornis skull in three views. Compare to latest Cretaceous Asteriornis in figure 3.

Among crown birds, (Neornithes)
Asteriornis is old (66 mya), but the hen-sized ostrich sister, Patagopteryx, is older (80 mya), more primitive and was descried earlier (Alvarenga and Bonaparte 1992). Later Chiappe (1996, 2002, 2015) nested Patagopteryx between Enantiornithes and Hesperonis. Patagopteryx was not tested by Field et al. Instead the authors report, “The Mesozoic record of well-supported crown birds is restricted to a single latest Maastrichtian taxon, Vegavis iaai.” In the large reptile tree (LRT, 1657+ taxa then 1861 taxa now; subset Fig. 4), gracile, long-legged Vegavis lies just inside the clade of Crown birds.

Figure 1. The two-toed ostrich (Struthio) nests with the four-toed Patagopteryx, when all relatives have only three toes.
Figure 3. The two-toed ostrich (Struthio) nests with the four-toed Patagopteryx, when all relatives have only three toes.

Field et al. nested Asteriornis 
uncertainly either closer to geese (Anseriformes) or closer to chickens (Galliformes), or at the base of the traditional, but invalid clade, ‘Galloanserae’. The authors report, “The specimen exhibits a previously unseen combination of features that are diagnostic of Galliformes and Anseriformes, which together form the crown clade Galloanserae—one of the most deeply diverging clades of crown birds and the sister group to the hyperdiverse extant clade Neoaves.”

The LRT agrees. The Galliformes do not nest with the Anseriformes.

Figure 4. Subset of the LRT focusing on theropods. Asteriornis now nests with Cnemiornis, the giant flightless goose.

Chickens and ducks are not related to one another
in LRT (subset, Fig. 4). Chickens are related to grouse, peacocks, sparrows, hoatzins, parrots and other ground-dwelling seed eaters. Ducks and geese arise from long-legged Presybyornis and other long-legged shorebirds. In the LRT, Asteriornis is closer to the newly added giant, flightless goose, Cnemiornis.

Field et al. have too few taxa
in their taxon list. Only one Archaeopteryx is shown in their cladogram, but it was not tested in their analysis where Hesperornithes and Ichthyornis are outgroup taxa. By contrast, in the LRT, both of these toothy taxa are members of the crown group, nesting between toothless ratites and all other toothless birds. Neither the chicken clade nor the duck clade are basal clades in the LRT.

Dr. Kevin Padian (2020) wrote a companion article
explaining the importance of Asteriornis and its relationship to crown birds and stem birds for a broader audience. Padian reports, “Ancient birds are outside the crown group because they lack the structural and physiological features characteristic of living birds. Sometime during the latest Cretaceous, a stem-group lineage of birds evolved that had much higher growth rates than these more basal lineages, and that generally matured within a year or even sooner. These became the crown-group birds.”

Given Dr. Padian’s definitions
several Cretaceous birds (Fig. 4), qualify as crown group birds because they phylogenetically appear in the LRT after the basalmost extant bird, Megapodius.

Dr. Padian also reviews the disagreement
between molecular evidence and the new palaeontological evidence offered by Asteriornis. He reports, “The evidence for Asteriornis reported by Field and colleagues implies that crown-group birds first evolved when the Cretaceous period was nearly over.” That’s not true for many reasons, all based on taxon exclusion.

Field et al. considered Asteriornis unique among known taxa
in exhibiting caudally pointed nasals that overlie the frontals and meet at the midline, and a slightly rounded, unhooked tip of the premaxilla. That first trait appears to be an error. The frontals extend to the premaxilla in Asteriornis. The mesethmoid, the same ‘soft spot’ that creates the casque in Casuarius, the cassowary, may be the source of the confusion.

Alvarenga and Bonaparte 1992. A new flightless land bird from the Cretaceous of Patagonia; pp. 51–64 in K. E. Campbell (ed.), Papers in Avian Paleontology, Honoring Pierce Brodkorb. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Science Series 36.
Chiappe LM 1996a. Late Cretaceous birds of southern South America: anatomy and systematics of Enantiornithes and Patagopteryx deferrariisi; pp. 203–244 in G. Arratia (ed.), Contributions of Southern South America to Vertebrate Paleontology, Münchner Geowissenschaftliche Abhandlungen Volume 30.
Chiappe LM 1996. 
Early avian evolution in the southern hemisphere: Fossil record of birds in the Mesozoic of Gondwana. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 39:533–556.
Chiappe LM 2002. Osteology of the flightless Patagopteryx deferrariisi from the late Cretaceous of Patagonia (Argentina) pp.281–316 in Mesozoic Birds, Above the Heads of Dinosaurs, Chapter: 13, Editors: Chiappe LM and Witmer LM, University of California Press.
Field DJ, Benito J, Chen A, Jagt JWM and Ksepka DT 2020. Late Cretaceous neornithine from Europe illuminates the origins of crown birds. Nature 579:397–401.
Padian K 2020. Poultry through time. Nature online

Taxon list used by Field et al. 2020.

2 thoughts on “Asteriornis: Oldest crown bird fossil yet discovered? No.

  1. Artist’s reconstruction of the world’s oldest modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis. This reconstruction is based on the original fossil bones of Asteriornis, and comparisons with the fossil’s closest living relatives: duck-like and chicken-like birds. Asteriornis had fairly long legs and may have prowled the tropical shoreline.

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