A great diversity of dinosaurs roamed the earth until 66 million years ago, when an asteroid impact changed the global ecosystem so much that they died out …with the exception of a few kinds of avian dinosaurs that eventually became birds. What made those survivors so special? How were they different from all those dinos that died out in the aftermath of the impact? One theory holds that it was the beaks.
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When the extinction struck, the traits birds had been evolving for millions of years made the difference between life and death. While some birds survived the impact and its aftermath, not all of them did. “When we think about hypotheses of traits that let birds survive, we need to take into account that it was only a small sliver of diversity that made it to the other side,” Felice says. Entire groups of birds, such as toothed birds called enantiornithes, went extinct. It’s unlikely that one single trait determined the fate of all these species. Still, surviving extinction often comes down to luck, and beaks may have been some birds’ ace.
By the end of the Cretaceous, beaked birds were already eating a much more varied diet than their toothed relatives. These birds weren’t specialized on insects or other animal food, and so they were able to pluck up hard food items like seeds and nuts. And in the aftermath of the extinction, when animal life was severely cut back, those hard, persistent little morsels got beaked birds through the hard times. Beaked birds were able to feed on the seeds of the destroyed forests and wait out the decades until vegetation began to return.
There’s a lot more to the story, which you can read at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Steveoc 86)