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Temporal range: Late Maastrichtian
66.8–66.7  Ma
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Infraclass: Neognathae
Clade: Pangalloanserae
Genus: Asteriornis
Field et al. 2020
Type species
Asteriornis maastrichtensis
Field et al. 2020

Asteriornis ("Asteria's bird" [1] ) is an extinct genus of bird from the Late Cretaceous of Belgium which is known from a single species, Asteriornis maastrichtensis. It was closely related to birds of the extant superorder Galloanserae such as chickens and ducks. Members of the genus were small, long-legged birds (~394 g) [2] [3] that lived near the coastline and co-existed with more "primitive" types of birds such as Ichthyornis. Asteriornis is one of the oldest-known birds belonging to the group Neornithes, which encompasses all modern birds. It possesses characteristics of both galliformes (chicken-like birds) and anseriformes (duck-like birds), indicating its position as a close relative of the last common ancestor for both groups. [2] [4]


Asteriornis may shed light on why Neornithes were the only dinosaurs to survive the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Its coexistence with non-neornithean birds such as Ichthyornis implies that competition was not a primary factor for the extinction of non-neornitheans, which resembled modern birds in most respects but died out with other non-avian dinosaurs. Small size, [5] a terrestrial lifestyle, [6] and a generalist diet [7] have all been inferred as ecological advantages possessed by early neornithes, allowing them to survive and diversify in the wake of the extinction. [4] [8] Asteriornis fulfills these qualities, suggesting that such suspicions were justified. [2] Asteriornis is also evidence against a different hypothesis stating that modern birds originated from southern continents. This was supported by observations on modern bird diversity [9] and the discovery of Vegavis (a possible neornithean from Antarctica), [10] but Asteriornis's presence in Europe suggests that modern birds may have been widespread in northern continents in their early evolution. [2]

Discovery and naming

Asteriornis is based on specimen NHMM 2013 008, held in the Maastricht Natural History Museum (Dutch: Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht), which consists of an almost complete skull and fragments of leg bones and a radius. It was retrieved from four blocks of sediment found at the CBR-Romontbos quarry near Eben-Emael in the Maastricht Formation of Belgium, [2] and was first unearthed in 2000, [11] by amateur paleontologist Maarten van Dinther, who donated it to the museum. [2] This geological formation is the namesake of the Maastrichtian stage, which was the last stage of the Cretaceous period and the Mesozoic era. It is dated to around 66.8 to 66.7 million years old, [12] less than a million years before the arrival of the asteroid that caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, killed off all non-avian dinosaurs (and many other animals), and began the Cenozoic era. [2]

The genus name, Asteriornis, was constructed from ornis, the Greek word for bird, [13] and from Asteria, a titan from Greek mythology, who was associated with falling stars, and about whom there is a famous myth in which she transforms herself into a quail. The Asteri part of genus name thus alludes to the Chicxulub impactor a "falling star", and also alludes to quails which are members of the galloanserans. The species name A. maastrichtensis is named after the Maastricht Formation. [2] The researchers who discovered and described the fossil gave Asteriornis the nickname "Wonderchicken", which was picked up by various news outlets. [11] [14]


The beak was slightly downcurved and lightweight. Unlike galloanserans, the beak did not have any specialized connections to the rest of the skull, nor a hooked tip. Instead its front tip was slightly rounded. The skull was narrowest over the orbits (eye sockets), where the frontal bones were incised by a V-shaped part of the nasal bones. The bones forming the jaw joint were very galloanseran-like. The quadrate bone (the cranium's contribution to the jaw joint) connected to the skull roof via two pronounced knobs, which were adjacent to a third smaller knob, the tuberculum subcapitulare. The mandible (lower jaw) connected to the quadrate with a pair of sockets, and the rear end of the lower jaw had a large hooked rearward-facing retroarticular process as well as a smaller inward-facing medial process. All of these characteristics are considered unique to (or at least most common in) galloanserans. [2]

In some respects the skull seems more similar to galliform birds such as chickens and pheasants. These include unfused snout bones and nasal bones which fork in front of the eyes. In other respects it resembles anseriform birds such as ducks and geese. Such features include the hooked retroarticular process of the jaw and a postorbital process (the portion of bone forming the rear edge of the eye socket) which curves forward at its lower extent. These demonstrate a principle of evolution that animals close to the common ancestor of two groups share some similarities with each group. [2]

The radius fragment flattens and widens towards the wrist, where it possesses a large hooked bump. Leg bones are elongated and slender, similar in proportions and structure to modern ground-living birds. The femur has well-developed muscle ridges and a large, angular medial condyle. The tibiotarsus is widest towards the knee, while the tarsometatarsus is thinner and covered with ridges. [2]


A phylogenetic analysis placed Asteriornis near the base of Galloanserae, an expansive superorder containing birds such as chickens, ducks, pheasants, and other types of fowl and gamebirds. The precise placement varied based on whether the analysis used parsimony or Bayesian protocol. Parsimony placed it as the sister taxon to Galloanserae, meaning that it was a distant relative of the last common ancestor of chickens and ducks. Bayesian protocol instead placed it within Galloanserae, specifically as the sister taxon to Galliformes. This means that it was more closely related to chickens than to ducks, but also that was not a direct ancestor of modern chicken-like birds. [2]

Classifying Asteriornis as a relative of chickens and ducks means that it is unequivocally a neornithean. This is important because Neornithes originated at the last common ancestor of all living birds, and corresponds to the term "bird" as it refers to modern-day animals. Pre-neornithean birds such as Ichthyornis, enantiornitheans, or Archaeopteryx generally resemble modern birds but retain primitive features such as teeth or wing claws. [4] Neornithean fossils are extremely rare from the Mesozoic age, and are generally fragmentary or poorly described. Vegavis from the Late Cretaceous (~66.5 Ma) of Antarctica was originally described as a relative of ducks and geese, [10] but this classification is controversial and some paleontologists do not consider it a proper neornithean. Asteriornis is based on diagnostic and well-preserved skull material and its status is less unstable, so it can be considered the oldest undisputed fossil of a modern-style neornithean bird. [2]

Related Research Articles

Dinosaur Superorder of reptiles (fossil)

Dinosaurs are a diverse group of reptiles of the clade Dinosauria. They first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233.23 million years ago, although the exact origin and timing of the evolution of dinosaurs is the subject of active research. They became the dominant terrestrial vertebrates after the Triassic–Jurassic extinction event 201.3 million years ago; their dominance continued through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The fossil record demonstrates that birds are modern feathered dinosaurs, having evolved from earlier theropods during the Late Jurassic epoch. As such, birds were the only dinosaur lineage to survive the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event approximately 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs can therefore be divided into avian dinosaurs, or birds; and non-avian dinosaurs, which are all dinosaurs other than birds.

Fowl Superorder of birds

Fowl are birds belonging to one of two biological orders, namely the gamefowl or landfowl (Galliformes) and the waterfowl (Anseriformes). Anatomical and molecular similarities suggest these two groups are close evolutionary relatives; together, they form the fowl clade which is scientifically known as Galloanserae. This clade is also supported by morphological and DNA sequence data as well as retrotransposon presence/absence data.

The Late Cretaceous is the younger of two epochs into which the Cretaceous period is divided in the geologic timescale. Rock strata from this epoch form the Upper Cretaceous series. The Cretaceous is named after the white limestone known as chalk which occurs widely in northern France and is seen in the white cliffs of south-eastern England, and which dates from this time.

Enantiornithes subclass of birds (fossil)

Enantiornithes is a group of extinct avialans, the most abundant and diverse group known from the Mesozoic era. Almost all retained teeth and clawed fingers on each wing, but otherwise looked much like modern birds externally. Over 80 species of enantiornitheans have been named, but some names represent only single bones, so it is likely that not all are valid. Enantiornitheans became extinct at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, along with hesperornithids and all other non-avian dinosaurs. They are thought to have no living descendants.

Hesperornithes Order of aquatic avialans closely related to the ancestors of modern birds (fossil)

Hesperornithes is an extinct and highly specialized group of aquatic avialans closely related to the ancestors of modern birds. They inhabited both marine and freshwater habitats in the Northern Hemisphere, and include genera such as Hesperornis, Parahesperornis, Baptornis, Enaliornis, and Potamornis, all strong-swimming, predatory divers. Many of the species most specialized for swimming were completely flightless. The largest known hesperornithean, Canadaga arctica, may have reached a maximum adult length of over 1.5 metres (4.9 ft).

<i>Vegavis</i> Extinct genus of birds

Vegavis is a genus of extinct bird that lived during the Late Cretaceous of Antarctica, some 68 to 66 mya. Among modern birds, most studies show that Vegavis is most closely related to ducks and geese (Anatidae), but it is not considered to be a direct ancestor of them. Although other studies question these results.

<i>Ichthyornis</i> genus of birds (fossil)

Ichthyornis is an extinct genus of toothed seabird-like ornithuran from the late Cretaceous period of North America. Its fossil remains are known from the chalks of Alberta, Alabama, Kansas, New Mexico, Saskatchewan, and Texas, in strata that were laid down in the Western Interior Seaway during the Turonian through Campanian ages, about 95–83.5 million years ago. Ichthyornis is a common component of the Niobrara Formation fauna, and numerous specimens have been found.

<i>Hesperornis</i> genus of modern birds

Hesperornis is a genus of cormorant-like bird that spanned the first half of the Campanian age of the Late Cretaceous period. One of the lesser-known discoveries of the paleontologist O. C. Marsh in the late 19th century Bone Wars, it was an early find in the history of avian paleontology. Locations for Hesperornis fossils include the Late Cretaceous marine limestones from Kansas and the marine shales from Canada. Nine species are recognised, eight of which have been recovered from rocks in North America and one from Russia.

<i>Yanornis</i> species of bird (fossil)

Yanornis is an extinct genus of fish-eating Early Cretaceous birds. Two species have been described, both from Liaoning province, China: Yanornis martini, based on several fossils found in the 120-million-year-old Jiufotang Formation at Chaoyang, and Yanornis guozhangi, from the 124-million-year-old Yixian Formation.

Evolution of birds Derivation of birds from a dinosaur precursor, and the adaptive radiation of bird species

The evolution of birds began in the Jurassic Period, with the earliest birds derived from a clade of theropod dinosaurs named Paraves. Birds are categorized as a biological class, Aves. For more than a century, the small theropod dinosaur Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Late Jurassic period was considered to have been the earliest bird. Modern phylogenies place birds in the dinosaur clade Theropoda. According to the current consensus, Aves and a sister group, the order Crocodilia, together are the sole living members of an unranked "reptile" clade, the Archosauria. Four distinct lineages of bird survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago, giving rise to ostriches and relatives (Paleognathae), ducks and relatives (Anseriformes), ground-living fowl (Galliformes), and "modern birds" (Neoaves).

Ichthyornithes subclass of birds

Ichthyornithes is an extinct group of toothed avialans very closely related to the common ancestor of all modern birds. They are known from fossil remains found throughout the late Cretaceous period of North America, though only one species, Ichthyornis dispar, is represented by complete enough fossils to have been named. Ichthyornitheans became extinct at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, along with enantiornitheans, all other non-avian dinosaurs, and many other animal and plant groups.

Polarornis is a genus of prehistoric bird, possibly an anserimorph. It contains a single species Polarornis gregorii, known from incomplete remains of one individual found on Seymour Island, Antarctica, in rocks which are dated to the Late Cretaceous.

Gallornis is a genus of prehistoric birds from the Cretaceous. The single known species Gallornis straeleni lived near today's Auxerre in Yonne département (France); it has been dated very tentatively to the Berriasian-Hauterivian stages, that is about 140–130 million years ago. The known fossil material consists of a worn partial femur and a fragment of the humerus.

Limenavis is a prehistoric bird genus from the Late Cretaceous. It lived about 70 million years ago, around the Campanian-Maastrichtian boundary. Known from several broken bones, the remains of the only known species Limenavis patagonica were found in rocks of the "lower member" of the Allen Formation at Salitral Moreno, 20 km south of General Roca, Río Negro (Argentina).

Ornithurae taxon of modern and prehistoric birds

Ornithurae is a natural group which includes the common ancestor of Ichthyornis, Hesperornis, and all modern birds as well as all other descendants of that common ancestor.

Neoaves Clade of birds

Neoaves is a clade that consists of all modern birds with the exception of Paleognathae and Galloanserae. Almost 95% of the roughly 10,000 known species of modern birds belong to the Neoaves.

Pangalliformes Clade of birds

Pangalliformes is the scientific name of a provisional clade of birds within the group Galloanserae. It is defined as all birds more closely related to chickens than to ducks, and includes all modern chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and megapodes, as well as extinct species that do not fall within the crown group Galliformes.

Evolution of reptiles The origin and diversification of reptiles through geologic time

Reptiles arose about 310–320 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. Reptiles, in the traditional sense of the term, are defined as animals that have scales or scutes, lay land-based hard-shelled eggs, and possess ectothermic metabolisms. So defined, the group is paraphyletic, excluding endothermic animals like birds and mammals that are descended from early reptiles. A definition in accordance with phylogenetic nomenclature, which rejects paraphyletic groups, includes birds while excluding mammals and their synapsid ancestors. So defined, Reptilia is identical to Sauropsida.

Vegaviidae is an extinct basal family of anserimorph birds which existed from the Late Cretaceous to the Early Paleogene periods with fossils found in Canada, Chile, New Zealand, and Antarctica.

Biogeography of paravian dinosaurs Geographic distribution of paravian dinosaurs

The biogeography of Paravian dinosaurs is the study of the global distribution of Paraves through geological history. Paraves is a clade that includes all of the Theropoda that are more closely related to birds than to oviraptorosaurs. These include Dromaeosauridae and Troodontidae and Avialae. The distribution of paraves is closely related to the evolution of the clade. Understanding the changes in their distributions may shed light on problems like how and why paraves evolve, eventually gaining the ability to fly.


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