Most people prefer a good Tyrannosaur to a lowly duck. It’s a matter of choice of course, but when thinking about dinosaurs you probably have visions of ruthless predators with teeth the size of meat cleavers, or titanic herbivores bigger than small buildings, whereas ducks tend to float around in ponds inquiring after handfuls of bread.
However palaeontologists and biologists have revealed evidence that the humble duck may have triumphed over the mighty dinosaurs.
You may have heard the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It’s actually quite an old idea, and dates from 1861 when Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer described a newly found fossil dinosaur called Archaeopteryx. This winged creature had features that were reptilian, such as teeth (birds don’t have teeth) and a long lizardy tail, but also had bird-like features too, such as upper arms adapted into wings and, wait for it, wait or it, feathers! Dinosaurs had feathers. Think about that for a minute. It’s pretty awesome. (What d’ya mean that’s old news?)
Since Achaeopteryx was first discovered more feathered dinosaur fossils have been found, like Caudipteryx and Microraptor, mostly in China as it happens. Brilliantly, it seems that loads of dinosaurs probably had feathers.
The idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs is now well accepted. In fact, birds actually are dinosaurs. Next time someone confidently mentions that dinosaurs went extinct you can ruin their fun, and look like a right smart-arse, by proudly pointing to the Blue Tits dancing around the bird feeder in the garden and loudly pronouncing “there be dinosaurs!” Take my word for it; people will love you for this.
The mainstream view of this theory was that a group of dinosaurs called theropods evolved into the first early birds before the mass extinction that wiped-out the “proper” dinosaurs, and that after surviving this catastrophe, these early forms evolved into the wide variety of modern birds we see decorating our trees and sky today.
But, this may not have been the case. Modern birds may have actually evolved from the early ancestral birds before the mass extinction, so that dinosaurs, ancestral birds (flying dinosaurs with feathers), and modern birds may have all lived together at the same time. I like to imagine a jaunty little Robin perched on the back of a mighty sauropod. OK, Robins themselves didn’t exist 70 million years ago, but one of their modern bird ancestors probably did, so you get the picture, capiche?
This evidence comes from both fossils in rocks and birds living today.
Biologists have examined the DNA of living birds using a technique called a “molecular clock” in which they look at how different the DNA of two related bird species is, and then estimate how long it would have taken for evolution to produce such differences (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture). This molecular clock evidence suggested that some modern bird families were as old as 70 million years, whereas the dinosaur-killing mass extinction happened 65 million years ago.
And in recent years palaeontologists have found a number of fossils that look suspiciously like modern birds, with features such as fingerless wings and modern-looking wrist bones, that predate the K-T mass extinction and roughly match the timing suggested by the biological evidence.
This begs a question though, why did the “proper” dinosaurs and “dino-birds” like Archaeopteryx go extinct, but not the first modern birds? How did they survive the K-T mass extinction?
A palaeontologist called Dr. Gareth Dyke believes that ducks may hold the key.
The modern bird fossils found before the mass extinction boundary look distinctly duckish, and most likely lived in the same kind of environments we find ducks today, like seashores and ponds. Ducks are generalist birds, they eat all kinds of things and can live in a range of habitats and climates, basically you see ducks all over the place.
Dr. Dyke, and many others, believe that many of the dinosaurs living at the end of the Cretaceous, just before the mass extinction, were specialised, adapted by natural selection to very specific modes of life. So when the catastrophe struck, probably in the form of a massive meteor strike, but maybe also a monstrous volcanic eruption, these specialists couldn’t cope, as the rapid environmental change destroyed their ecological niches.
I’ll give you an example to make it a bit clearer. Suppose Archaeopteryx ate only one kind of prey, say a specific kind of fish, if these fish were wiped-out in the mass extinction, then Archaeopteryx may not have been able to adapt to new prey and will have gone extinct.
Ducks however eat pretty much anything, plants, insects, fish, frogs, small children, Nando’s, the lot. Ducks may be a lot of things, but they aren’t fussy eaters. Neither are they too picky about where they live. Dr. Dyke’s hypothesis is that these early duck-like modern birds were also generalists, thus were able to adapt to the changing conditions of the K-T environmental disaster and survived where many other species could not, by eating whatever and living wherever.
As the world recovered, these early modern birds could then fill many of the niches vacated by “proper” dinosaur species and diversified into the wild variety of birds we see in the later fossil record and all around us today, from eagles, to sparrows, and to the greatest bird of our times, the Kakapo.
The Kakapo, probably the best bird, ever
So there you have it. Early modern birds survived the mass extinction that wiped-out the dinosaurs by basically being like ducks.
Disclaimer, I’ve written this in the style of an idiot, I’m not attempting to make light of Dr. Dyke’s theory though, it’s great, and it holds a lot of water (crap pun intended).