The premise of Jurassic Park was that scientists found a way to use dinosaur DNA to bring long-extinct species back from the dead. The reality is must more complicated, of course, but researchers from the University of Kent now say that dinosaur DNA is actually all around us, we just see the animals as part of our everyday lives.
In an ew paper published in Nature Communications, scientists explain how tracing the roots of dinosaur DNA led them to a wild conclusion: Birds are, in fact, just modern day dinosaurs.
It’s long been thought that birds are one of the few leftovers of the ancient beasts that we know as dinosaurs. Fossils have revealed that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers, and that their skeletal structures share a lot with those of birds we see today. As it turns out, none of this is coincidence, and genetics gives us the ability to draw hard links between extinct species and animals that we see all around us right now.
“We think it generates variation. Having a lot of chromosomes enables dinosaurs to shuffle their genes around much more than other types of animals,” Professor Darren Griffin told the BBC. “This shuffling means that dinosaurs can evolve more quickly and so help them survive so long as the planet changed.”
Using the DNA of the closest living relatives of dinosaurs, including birds, the team hit the rewind button, tracing the genetic changes backwards in order to ultimately arrive at dinosaurs. What they believe they’ve discovered is that much of the DNA of modern birds was also shared by ancient reptiles, meaning that the two are even more similar than scientists could have possibly guessed.
“The fossil evidence and now our evidence reinforces the idea that rather than birds and dinosaurs being distant relatives, they are one in the same,” Dr Rebecca O’Connor, lead author of the research, says. “The birds around us today are dinosaurs.”
Obviously, we don’t see birds today that have bone-crushing jaws or massive armored plates. It’s clear that evolution has pushed them in a new direction, perhaps due to the incredible changes that took place on Earth over a very short period of time. Those environmental factors doomed many species, but not all of them. Birds you see today are actually the ancestors of the ones that survived.
For the most part, humans are lazy slobs. We leave our trash just about everywhere — including the farthest reaches of the ocean and even space — but attendees of a theme park in France are going to get a helping hand in keeping clean thanks to a crew of incredibly smart birds.
The Puy du Fou amusement park in Les Epesses, France, has already deployed several trained rooks, which are a species of black birds which are typically scavengers. The birds have no problem digging through human refuse for a tasty treat, so the park has employed them to pick up small pieces of trash in exchange for a steady food supply.
The system the park officials have come up with is pretty unique: First, the birds find bits of litter scattered around the park, including things like cigarette butts and plastic wrappers, and then drop them off in a small trash bin which automatically rewards the bird with some food. The birds are very smart, and clearly don’t mind picking up after humans if they get a meal out of the deal.
According to the BBC, the park already had some of the birds working on trash cleanup but more were being added to the avian army this week.
“The goal is not just to clear up, because the visitors are generally careful to keep things clean,” Nicolas de Villiers, park head, told an AFP reporter. He added that the exercise is an example of how nature itself can teach us to keep nature that the planet tidy. That might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly neat that the park’s flying residents now have a meaningful and fulfilling job to do.
When you gaze into the sky, what do you see? If you happen to live in China, the answer might be surveillance drones disguised as birds, according to a new report from the South China Morning Post. The new report alleges that Chinese military and government agencies have been using undercover drones to spy on segments of the population, especially in an area of Western China that borders Russia, Mongolia, and Pakistan, among other countries.
The drones, which are part of a program that is apparently called “Dove,” are disguised to look like everyday birds. The robotic avians have flapping wings attached to a central body unit that includes a GPS module, speed sensor, downward-facing camera, and an antenna that allows its handlers to control its movements.
The report, which cites multiple trusted sources, says that the program went through a number of refinements before being deployed, with thousands of test flights. The bird bots are apparently extremely lifelike and nearly impossible to differentiate from an actual bird when looking from the ground.
The drones are even equipped with an advanced flight control system that smooths out what might be perceived as awkward, unnatural movements, allowing the bots to appear as lifelike as possible while providing a smooth video feed.
Researchers who are working on the Dove program told the paper that their use is still quite limited. However, they suggest that larger-scale use and deployment of the drones could come sooner rather than later, and that the bird bots have “some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilians sectors.”
The area of Western China that has seen the most widespread use of the drones is a hotbed of separatist sentiment. The report notes that the area has been heavily monitored by Chinese officials for a while now, and these robotic birds are simply another tool in the government’s arsenal.
It’s all a bit spooky, especially when you consider that it such a program would probably work just as well in America, Europe, and pretty much anywhere else. A robotic bird that can mimic 90% of the movements of the real thing would be hard to spot for the vast majority of people, especially if nobody is actually looking at them.
When the asteroid that struck the Earth in Chicxulub, Mexico, slammed into the surface some 66 million years ago it made life incredibly difficult for just about every living creature on the planet. It caused massive swings in temperature, and shrouded the Earth in a cloud of darkness which killed off plant life on a massive scale. Now, a new study into the effect the asteroid impact had on bird life is suggesting that the only birds to survive the ordeal were actually ground-dwelling species, but why was that the case?
According to the study, which was published in Current Biology, the diversity of the bird species that survived the impact and immediate aftermath was quite narrow. By studying bird fossils from the period prior to the impact and contrasting that with post-impact fossils, the researchers determined that ground-dwelling birds were the only ones who managed to tough it out, and they think they know why.
Thanks to foliage fossils from the time, scientists know that the asteroid sparked massive fires that wiped out huge sections of forest. The deforestation was so dramatic that it prevented birds from nesting as they normally would. In the centuries following the impact, ferns dominated North America, and tree-dwelling bird species simply couldn’t adjust in time. Ground-dwelling, quail-like birds on the other hand were better equipped to deal with this new landscape.
The researchers say that only a handful of modern bird types were actually around prior to the asteroid’s arrival, including the ancient ancestors of chickens and ducks. Gathering their food from the ground rather than finding it by air, these primitive birds were able to hang on against all odds.
However, as Science magazine points out, some researchers aren’t so ready to accept these dramatic findings. Some have suggested that the scientists behind the work are trying to draw broad conclusions from a smattering of evidence. “It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades,” Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City notes. “I don’t think it’s going to end any time soon.”
Despite what you might assume, given the huge number of fossils uncovered in recent years, finding remains of prehistoric creatures is actually pretty hard. Add to that the obvious fact that paleontologists don’t get to decide what age an ancient creature was when it died and you can start to get an idea for how difficult it is to find a fossil of an animal that died as an infant. A newly-discovered juvenile bird specimen found in Spain is thought to have died just days after being born, and the fossil is an incredibly rare opportunity for scientists to study the development and evolution of ancient birds.
The bird is thought to have lived ever so briefly around 127 million years ago, and belonged to a group of ancient avians that were something of a half-way point between dinosaurs and modern day birds. The creature was likely covered in plumage, but also had teeth as well as claws on its wings. The study was published in Nature Communications.
The tiny bird measures just a few centimeters, but its small size belies its ability to shape science’s understanding of avian evolution. The researchers used special scanning tools to map its bone structure while preserving the fossil’s integrity, and what they discovered is that, despite being separated by tens of millions of years, the creature is not all that dissimilar from the birds we see today.
“This new discovery, together with others from around the world, allows us to peek into the world of ancient birds that lived during the age of dinosaurs,” Luis Chiappe of the LA Natural Museum of Natural History, and co-author of the study, explains. “It is amazing to realise how many of the features we see among living birds had already been developed more than 100 million years ago.”
Because of the lack of hardened bone in its sternum at its young age, researchers don’t believe the bird would have been able to fly just yet. However, that doesn’t necessarily point to the bird being entirely dependent on its parents for food, and it’s not yet known whether or not the ancient birds became independent shortly after hatching or relied on others for care. Additional examples will help to paint a clearer picture, but with how rare such a discovery is, it may be a while before scientists have a definitive answer.