How Different Are Chickens from Their Dinosaur Ancestors?

It's common knowledge that today's birds are the descendants of dinosaurs such as the Velociraptor, but many evolutionary processes have occurred over millions of years to transform feathered dinosaurs into modern-day flamingos, toucans, and even chickens. One of the most significant changes was the shift from a reptile-like snout to a pointed bird beak.

Scientists "turned off" the genes that cause chicken embryos to grow beaks, so that they instead grew dinosaur-like snouts.
Scientists "turned off" the genes that cause chicken embryos to grow beaks, so that they instead grew dinosaur-like snouts.

Scientists from Yale and Harvard wanted to learn about how the evolution from snout to beak occurred, so they experimented with chicken DNA. They discovered that birds have a unique grouping of genes that non-beaked creatures lack. When they silenced those genes in chicken embryos, they found that the chickens' beak and palate structures reverted back to their ancestral snout-like shape.

What came first, the bird or the beak?

  • The evolution of the beak is a vital aspect of bird anatomy, a crucial cog in the development of more than 10,000 species of birds that live on Earth today. Without it, birds couldn’t have survived.

  • To turn off beak development in the chicken embryos, the scientists restricted certain proteins. The embryonic chickens they produced had short, rounded bones instead of elongated, fused beaks. But actual animals weren't hatched, only embryos.

  • “These weren't drastic modifications," the researchers said, citing ethical concerns related to altering nature scientifically. “They are far less weird than many breeds of chicken developed by chicken hobbyists and breeders.”

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