Modern birds’ upper beaks are made up mostly from skull bones called the premaxilla, but the snouts of their earlier non-avian dinosaur ancestors were instead formed by large maxilla bones.
And Falcatakely forsterae here had a very unusual combination of these features.
Living in Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, it was around 40cm long (1’4″) and was part of a diverse lineage of Mesozoic birds known as enantiornitheans. These birds had claws on their wings and usually had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and many species also had ribbon-like display feathers on their tails instead of lift-generating fans.
Falcatakely had a long tall snout very similar in shape to a modern toucan, unlike any other known Mesozoic bird, with the surface texture of the bones indicating it was also covered by a keratinous beak. But despite this very “modern” face shape the bone arrangement was still much more similar to other enantiornitheans – there was a huge toothless maxilla making up the majority of the beak, with a small tooth-bearing premaxilla at the tip.
This suggests that there was more than one potential way for early birds to evolve modern-style beaks, and there may have been much more diversity in these animals’ facial structures than previously thought.
The enantiornitheans (“opposite-birds”) were the most diverse and widespread group of Mesozoic birds, existing all around the world throughout the Cretaceous period. They retained claws on their wings and had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and while most of them lacked the lift-generating tail fans of modern birds they appear to have still been very adept fliers.
But Elsornis keni here was doing something different.
Known from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia, about 80 million years ago, this opposite-bird lived alongside famous dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Protoceratops in what is now the Gobi Desert. Only a single partial specimen has ever been found, so its full life appearance is unknown and this reconstruction is somewhat speculative, but it would have been around the size of a pigeon at 25cm long (10″) – not including any decorative tail feathers it may have had, similar to other enantiornitheans.
It wing and shoulder bones were very odd for an opposite-bird, with proportions that don’t match anything capable of competent flight. Instead Elsornis appears to have been a flightless enantiornithean, a representative of a previously unknown terrestrial lineage.
Enantiophoenix electrophyla, an enantiornithean bird from the Late Cretaceous of Lebanon (~95 mya).
It was similar in size to a modern starling, around 20cm (8″) long, and although only known from a fragmentary fossil it had fairly chunky leg bones with large claws. It was probably a strong percher like most other avisaurid enantiornitheans.
Several tiny pieces of amber were also found within the fossil, which have been suggested to be stomach contents. This could perhaps be evidence of Enantiophoenix feeding on tree sap like modern sapsuckers, but without a known skull it’s hard to tell for certain whether it was specialized for that sort of diet or not.
Longipteryx chaoyangensis, an enantiornithine from the Early Cretaceous of China, about 120 million years ago. With a body length of only around 15cm (6″), it had a long snout tipped with a few hooked teeth and feet capable of perching – features that indicate it may have lived very similarly to modern kingfishers, feeding on fish and small invertebrates in its swampy forest habitat.
The enantiornithines were a sort of “cousin” lineage to modern birds. Most had toothy jaws and clawed wings, and the wide variety in their skull shapes suggests that they were specialized for many different dietary niches. The entire group went extinct during the K-Pg mass extinction and left no living descendants, but during the Cretaceous they were the most widespread and diverse group of birds*, with fossils currently known from every continent except Antarctica.
* Depending on how you define “bird”.