Early cretaceous birds with crops found in China

Sep 06, 2011
Reconstruction of Sapeornis chaoyangensis with preservation of a crop. (Image by Xing Lida and Liu Yi)

The crop is characteristic of seed-eating birds today, yet little is known about its early history despite remarkable discoveries of many Mesozoic seed-eating birds in the past decade. Scientists from Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong Province, China, and University of Kansas reported the discovery of some early fossil evidence for the presence of a crop in birds in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online today. Two Early Cretaceous birds, the basal ornithurine Hongshanornis and a basal avian Sapeornis, demonstrate that an essentially modern avian digestive system formed early in avian evolution.

In modern seed-eating birds the crop provides storage, so that a number of seeds can be gathered quickly and then processed later in a more secure location without interference from competitors and/or predators. The mucus in the crop softens hard seeds so that they are more easily ground by the gizzard. The gizzard may be a more basal feature for birds, because it is widely distributed in sister groups, such as modern . In recent birds the gizzard is posterior to the proventriculus or glandular part of the stomach. The practice of collecting large numbers of small stones in the gizzard is characteristic of seed eaters among modern birds and is often correlated with a well-developed crop.

In extant birds a crop is a ventral pouch of the esophagus and is situated anterior to the shoulder girdle just in front of the furcula. In fossils its position is indicated by a roughly spherical mass of seeds that is easily discriminated from stomach contents by its location outside of the ribcage.

“Despite the discoveries of more than 30 genera of fossil birds from the Early Cretaceous lacustrine deposits in northeastern China and many examples of dietary adaptations, it remains unknown whether a crop was present in these birds. Recently we examined hundreds of Early Cretaceous birds housed at the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong Province, China, and found several specimens belonging to two taxa with unequivocal evidence of crops”, said ZHENG Xiaoting, lead author and director of Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, China, “One of them is Sapeornis, one of the basal birds presumed to have an herbivorous diet, and the second taxon is the basal ornithurine Hongshanornis. Both have preserved seeds in the anatomical location of the crop in extant birds. In some cases, even the soft tissue outline of the crop can be observed and resembles closely the structure in modern birds.”

The discovery of a crop in two phylogenetically remote lineages of Early Cretaceous birds and its absence in most intervening forms indicates that it was independently acquired as a specialized seed-eating adaptation.

Photograph of Sapeornis chaoyangensis housed at the Tianyu Museum of Nature with preservation of a crop.(Image by IVPP)

"The discovery of a crop in two phylogenetically separate avian lineages opens a window for our understanding of dietary adaptation in the early avian radiation and may also help us better understand the great diversity in the Early Cretaceous, which occurred approximately 20 million years after the earliest bird, Archaeopteryx”, said Dr. ZHOU Zhonghe, correspondence author and research designer, Institute of and (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"A number of other Mesozoic birds and their theropod relatives have recently been reported with gizzard stones (gastroliths), including the basal ornithurines Yanornis and Archaeorhynchus, the oviraptosaur Caudipteryx, and the ornithomimosaur Shenzhousaurus, confirming that the presence of a muscular grinding stomach is primitive for birds. It may well have occurred in most species but is only documented in forms that foraged on the ground and thereby came into contact with small stones. The discovery of crops in combination with stomach stones demonstrates the presence at an early date of an essentially modern avian digestive system”, said Dr. Larry D. Martin, coauthor, Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas.

Photographs of an ornithurine Hongshanornis longicresta (Left) and close-up view of the seeds belonging to crop and the gizzard stones.(Image by IVPP)

All birds from the beginning of the Cenozoic are toothless. Although reduction of body weight has often been cited as an important factor for reduction or loss of teeth in birds, scientists believe the dietary adaptation was probably an equally if not more important factor in early avian evolution. Both avian taxa that preserved the evidence of a crop have either largely reduced teeth or have completely lost their teeth. The basal avian Sapeornis has partially reduced teeth, whereas the early ornithurine Hongshanornis has completely lost its teeth and is one of only few known toothless genera among Mesozoic ornithurine birds. Most ornithurine birds from this period seemed to have been water marginal and used small pointed teeth to capture small arthropods and fish.

The apparent link between the appearance of or gizzards or both and the loss of teeth across phylogenetic lineages suggests that granivory was probably one of the factors in the reduction of teeth in early birds. “It should also be noted that many raptorial birds like hawks and nectivorous birds like hummingbirds also have a crop. In these cases the crop does not seem to be linked with granivory. Unless we have more evidence about the distribution of the crop with diets in early , it is premature to argue that seedeating was necessarily the driving force for the origin of the avian crop; however, the current known evidence seems to suggest that seed-eating was at least an important factor in early avian evolution”, said ZHOU Zhonghe.

Explore further: Digging up the 'Spanish Vikings'

More information: "Fossil evidence of avian crops from the Early Cretaceous of China," by Xiaoting Zheng et al. PNAS (2011).

Provided by Institute of Vertebrae Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

5 /5 (5 votes)

Related Stories

The skull of extinct birds revealed

Mar 21, 2011

Birds are the most diverse clade on the planet, and the skull of the living bird is one of the most highly modified and morphologically variable regions of their skeleton. The large diversity of enantiornithine ...

Earliest toothless bird found

Dec 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new species of bird from the Cretaceous period in China has been identified. It had toothless upper and lower jaws, and provides significant information on the diversification in the evolution ...

Prehistoric bird fossil found in China

Dec 15, 2005

The fossil of a previously unknown water bird that lived some 125 million years ago has been found in sandstone near Inner Mongolia in northeast China.

Living dinosaurs: The evolutionary history of modern birds

Apr 05, 2011

"Even the wide interval between birds and reptiles has been shown by the naturalist to be partially bridged over in the most unexpected manner, on the one hand, by the ostrich and extinct Archeopteryx, and on the other hand, ...

Recommended for you

Digging up the 'Spanish Vikings'

12 hours ago

The fearsome reputation of the Vikings has made them the subject of countless exhibitions, books and films - however, surprisingly little is known about their more southerly exploits in Spain.

Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Dec 17, 2014

A new species of short-necked marine reptile from the Triassic period has been discovered in China, according to a study published December 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xiao-hong Chen f ...

Gothic cathedrals blend iron and stone

Dec 17, 2014

Using radiocarbon dating on metal found in Gothic cathedrals, an interdisciplinary team has shown, for the first time through absolute dating, that iron was used to reinforce stone from the construction phase. ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (8) Sep 06, 2011
The discovery of a crop in two phylogenetically remote lineages of Early Cretaceous birds and its absence in most intervening forms indicates that it was independently acquired as a specialized seed-eating adaptation.

Given the physical evidence one can also quite convincingly put forward the case for birds having been designed and created with crops - no evolution required. It takes far more faith to believe that two different lineages could have evolved separately - the probabilities are just mind-blowingly small.

So it all comes down to what one wants to believe: that there is no Creator and everything miraculously made itself or that we are accountable to a Creator. Take your pick.
Occupodies
4 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2011
So a single being miraculously made it, that's just as unbelievable if not more you jackass. At least there is scientific evidence backing natural selection vs creation. What words of science back up God just magicking everything into existence. Either way, both ideas require faith, either in reason or in a book wrote by a series of greedy men, tbh I totally would believe the greedy men if they wrote it 2000 years ago as well!
bwvandorn
not rated yet Sep 06, 2011
Fairy tales are for children who can't comprehend reality.
Beard
not rated yet Sep 07, 2011
The discovery of a crop in two phylogenetically remote lineages of Early Cretaceous birds and its absence in most intervening forms indicates that it was independently acquired as a specialized seed-eating adaptation.


Given the physical evidence one can also quite convincingly put forward the case for natural selection having adapted to crops - no invisible wizard required.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.