Hours digging in the August sun rewarded Kris Super, a Wichita freshman at Fort Hays State University, with a remarkable discovery — more than half a skeleton of an 85 million-year old bird.
Super and a few of his paleontology friends spent their last weekend before school “in the chalk” looking for fossils near Castle Rock, in Gove County, west of Hays. Late one afternoon, Super noticed some small bones wedged in rock.
“I was able to free a medium-sized slab of rock containing the bones,” said Super.
At first, Super said, the fossils looked like a “scrappy fish.” But after further study in his dorm room later that night, he thought it might be a bird instead. “I noticed a raised edge along the side of one of the bones that told me it used to be hollow,” said Super.
That same night, he emailed Dr. Laura Wilson, curator of paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and an assistant professor of geosciences at FHSU. They met the next morning, on Super’s first day of college.
It turns out he found the remains of a toothed flying bird called Ichthyornis from the Mesozoic Era, about 252 million to 66 million years ago.
Ichthyornis is Greek for “fish-bird” and is named that way due to its fish-like vertebrae.
Ichthyornis was first discovered in 1870 by a professor from Kansas State University in the Solomon River in Kansas.
Because of its reptile-like teeth, Ichthyornis further solidified the evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. This caused Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary theory, to write that Ichthyornis offered “the best support to the theory of evolution” since he had first published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.
The quality of the bones makes this fossil find especially rare since bird bones are notoriously difficult to preserve; the bones must be hollow in order to reduce weight and allow flight.
“This is why there are less fossil records of birds and more records of other specimens with thicker bones.” said Wilson.
“It’s really rare to have a fossil record of a bird with teeth,” said Super.
The fossil is also rare because of the number of bones Super found. “Not many fossils are this complete, but this one is more than half a skeleton,” said Super.
“Often, we only find a couple of bones associated with a skeleton, but in this case we have a large proportion of the skeleton preserved,” said Wilson. “Additionally, the bones are in really great shape.”
“I donated the fossils to Sternberg Museum so Dr. Wilson and I can continue to study it,” said Super. Researchers at KU are also working with them to further analyze the fossils.
“This specimen has a couple of years of research ahead of it already. This find will give us a great opportunity to study this extinct group of birds in more depth,” said Wilson.
Story from: Fort Hays State University