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Creature of the Week #9: Ichthyornis

  • 21-01-2010 2:12am
    Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭

    Ichthyornis (which means 'fish bird') was a perculiar bird that lived in the late Cretaceous some 80 million years ago. In appearance it would have looked an awful lot like a modern day seagull, only with one major difference - a mouth full of sharp teeth! In fact it was about the same size as a gull too. Artist's depictions often show it having feathers the same colour as modern gulls. However like most prehistoric creatures, this is not known.


    Ichthyornis was a powerful flyer, much moreso than earlier flying birds such as Archaeopteryx. It is believed to be a close relative of the true ancestors of modern birds, but it took it's own unique evolutionary path which is now, alas, a dead end. It's ilk do not appear to have survived beyond the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period.


    There is currently only one species of Ichthyornis known to science. It is called Ichthyornis dispar. There used to be several recognised species. However, these were all misidentified remains of different kinds of birds. Ichthyornis could be refered to as a 'wastebucket' genus', if you will, in that for a time many similar animals were lumped under the name Ichthyornis before being properly studied and given new names of their own. There could well be more species of Ichthyornis waiting to be discovered as the genus was quite widespread (ranging from all over North America and possibly South America and Asia too) and long lived (lasting some 15million years, from 90-75MYA), meaning that there are more species yet to be discovered.


    The teeth of Ichthyornis have been a focal point for bith great investigation and controversy. Whilst Ichthyornis was first discovered in 1870 by the legendary Ben Franklin and immediately recognised as a bird, in 1952 an Ichthyornis lower jaw and teeth was misidetified as belonging to a dwarf mosasaur (a type of carnivorous sea reptile) and named 'Colonosaurus mudgei'. Interestingly, Ichthyornis seems to have unusually sharp teeth, suggesting that it was an active hunter (most likely fish predominately) rather than an opportunistic scavenger. Although it would have to watch out, as there were many much larger predators around at the time which would have gladly made Ichthyornis their lunch (such as pterosaurs with wingspans exceeding 30 feet)!


    In 1880 Ichthyornis was one of the main features of Othniel Charles 'winner of the famous Bone-Wars' Marsh's monograph, which detailed bird evolution. Unfortunately not everyone liked the idea of taxpayers' money being spent on the study of 'birds with teeth!' as many a devout Christian would decry (bear in mind the theory of evolution was far from universally accepted at the time), leading to Marsh's monograph to be decomissioned.

    Where have I seen you before?
    Something very much like Ichthyornis makes a appearance in an episode of teh TV series Dinosaur Planet (Pod's Travels) (4:48). Although the episode is set in Europe, where no Ichthyornis remains are known, (as mentioned earlier) it had a wide range, so there is a good chance that it lived there too.

    One also appears in The Land Before Time IV: Journey through The Mists (were it is involved in an odd musical number with a visually challenged crocodile):


  • Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 10,079 Mod ✭✭✭✭marco_polo

    Nice choice, the first birdie of the series too :)