Everyone with an outdoor bird feeder or a pet parrot knows that birds love seeds. Apparently, this love goes all the way back to the Cretaceous Period as new evidence suggests it was their seed diet that saved the raptor ancestors of modern birds from extinction after the Chicxulub meteoroid impact 66 million years ago.
Paleontologists believe the modern-day ancestor of birds is a group of small dinosaurs called the maniraptorans. While some went extinct after Chicxulub, others survived on what was left to eat after the nuclear winter the impact caused. Derek Larson, paleontologist at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Alberta, says in his study in Current Biology that the secret to their survival was in their beaks – their shape and the seeds they ate.
We think that the survival of birds had something to do with the presence of their beak.
The research started with looking at the fossilized teeth of maniraptorans, which are identified by their long arms, three-fingered hands and breastbones – maniraptorans are the only known dinosaurs to have had them. Larson’s group studied over 3,000 fossilized maniraptoran teeth and found that they showed a steady pattern of evolution up to the end of the Cretaceous period when the fossils disappeared, indicating they died off.
They then traced 188 current bird species back to a common ancestor which was also a maniraptor with – you guessed it - no teeth in its beak. Information on maniraptors is limited, so the conclusions at this point are speculative at best. Larsen’s team believes Chicxulub impact’s nuclear winter killed the large leafy plants and fruit trees which fed the toothed maniroators which fed the toothed larger dinosaurs. However, the seeds that were left were excellent food for anything that could crack them open or pick them up and digest them whole. As anyone who has watched them eat knows, birds do this best.
Eventually, the nuclear winter cleared and the seeds sprouted again, allowing the toothless, beaked maniraptors to eat better and evolve into the wide variety of birds we have today.
Want to survive the apocalypse? Stop hoarding canned tuna, develop a taste for quinoa and buckwheat and be prepared to do battle at the feeder with birds and mutant squirrels.