How Did Some Birds Survive the Extinction Event That Killed the Dinosaurs?

Scientists think that beaks helped birds survive by eating seeds in the harsh conditions after an asteroid struck 66 million years ago.
Scientists think that beaks helped birds survive by eating seeds in the harsh conditions after an asteroid struck 66 million years ago.

It seems that bird life on Earth was saved by a nose. Or a beak, anyway. After an asteroid wiped out much of the life on Earth 66 million years ago, some bird species survived, eventually becoming the only present-day creatures thought to be the direct descendants of the dinosaurs.

Paleontologists now believe they know why: The bird species that survived had beaks, which allowed them to dine on the seeds and nuts that lay buried in the topsoil amidst the devastated forests. Vegetation did eventually return, but only the beaked birds were able to sustain themselves before that time. In fact, some other bird species had teeth rather than beaks – yes, many birds once had teeth – and like the rest of the animals, had no way to feed themselves and died out.

"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," said University College London anatomist Ryan Felice. "All the things that make birds, birds, were already in place well before the mass extinction."

The word on birds:

  • Ostriches have billiard ball-size eyes, which are bigger than their brains and the largest of any land animal.

  • Due to the structure of its mouth, a flamingo can eat only when its head is upside-down.

  • The hooded pitohui of Papua New Guinea has a toxin in its skin and feathers, making it one of the world's only poisonous birds.

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    • Scientists think that beaks helped birds survive by eating seeds in the harsh conditions after an asteroid struck 66 million years ago.
      Scientists think that beaks helped birds survive by eating seeds in the harsh conditions after an asteroid struck 66 million years ago.