A bird that lived with the dinosaurs 120 million years ago turns out to have had a bone tongue as long as its head.
The creature was discovered by scientists who uncovered its fossilized skeleton in northeastern China.
Modern birds such as ducks and parrots also stick their tongues out to move food around their mouths, get food into their mouths and help swallow food.
And hummingbirds and woodpeckers have a bone tongue that is as long or longer than their skulls.
But the extinct bird, named Brevirostruavis macrohyoideus, meaning ‘bird with a short snout and large tongue’, is the earliest example of a bird being able to stick its tongue out.
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A bird that lived with the dinosaurs 120 million years ago turns out to have had a bone tongue as long as its head. The creature was discovered by scientists who uncovered its fossilized skeleton in northeastern China
The discovery was made by researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Texas at Austin.
The team assumes that the old bird used its long tongue to catch insects, in the same way that a woodpecker uses it to grab insects out of holes in bark, wood and branches.
However, the prehistoric bird may have fed on pollen or nectar-like liquids from plants in the forest where it lived.
This bird, which boasts a short snout, was part of an extinct group of birds called enantiornithines or ‘opposite’ birds, which were the most successful group of birds in the Cretaceous (between 66 and 145 million years ago).
And fossils of these winged creatures have been found around the world.
Dr. Wang Min, co-author of the study, said in a statement: ‘We see a lot of variation in the size and shape of skulls of enantiornithine birds, and this probably reflects the great diversity of the foods they ate and how they caught their food. .
‘Now with this fossil we see that it is not only their skulls but their tongues that also vary.’
Researchers have previously shown that these early birds had rather stiff skulls just like their dinosaur relatives.
This feature puts some evolutionary and functional restrictions on early birds.
“Perhaps the only way for them to fundamentally change through evolution how they caught their food and what food they ate was to shorten their skull in this case and to make the tongue bones much longer,” said lead author Dr. LI Zhiheng.
Hummingbirds and woodpeckers (pictured) also have a bone tongue that is as long or longer than their skulls
The long, curved hyoid apparatus of the fossil bird is made of bones called ceratobranchials.
Live birds also have such bones in their hyoid, but it is the epibranchial bones that are missing in early birds that are very long in birds such as woodpeckers.
Co-author Dr. Thomas Stidham said in a statement: ‘Animals are experimentally evolving with what they have at their disposal.
‘This bird developed a long tongue using the bones it inherited from its dinosaur ancestors, and live birds developed longer tongues with the bones they have. This situation demonstrates the power of evolution, where birds use two different evolutionary paths to solve the same problem of getting a long tongue to stick out of their mouth. ‘