Saskatchewan River: Early Bird
Beaked dinosaur is missing link to birds
The badlands of southern Alberta are a treasure-trove for dinosaur
investigators. The absence of plant growth and the soft sandstone easily expose
the fossilized bones of prehistoric animals.
Alberta's badlands region is where, in 1996, convincing evidence was discovered to support
the theory that modern birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs.
Dr. Phil Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum does his research from the field station in
Dinosaur Provincial Park in the Badlands. He has discovered a fossilized dinosaur with a
beak like a bird's. The dinosaur was a familiar species that looked very much like a modern
ostrich. But this one was the first that had retained the animal's beak, a soft structure
that does not easily fossilize.
Alberta, 65-90 million years ago, was as warm, moist, and sandy as Florida is today. It
was an ideal place for dinosaurs to live, and for their bones to be preserved when they died.
Dinosaur fossils originated when bones were buried under protective covers of sand or mud.
Over thousands of years, the sand or mud hardened into porous rock. Water gradually dissolved
the bones, creating cavities in the rock. As water flowed through the cavities, it left behind
mineral deposits that eventually filled the cavities completely and became fossils.
Soft material, such as beaks, usually decayed before the fossilization process could begin.
The unusual find of a dinosaur fossil with a beak was the missing link that paleontologists
had been seeking to prove what most now believe: dinosaurs never did become extinct. Instead,
dinosaurs evolved to become more efficient animals that could fly to find food and to escape
“Personally, I think dinosaurs are alive and doing extremely well,” declared Currie. He
said 90 percent of his professional colleagues would now agree that “birds are the direct
descendants of dinosaurs.”
Birds and dinosaurs share about 125 physical characteristics. “If you pluck the feathers
off the first bird, the archaeopteryx, it's a dinosaur,” noted Currie.
The theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs first emerged 150 years ago, but was buried
under the general belief that dinosaurs all died off in some environmental disaster, such
as the crash of a moon-size meteorite.
Alberta's badlands have delivered key evidence to support the revived belief that dinosaurs
did not die off at all, but evolved into birds.
In this view, the disappearance of the prehistoric dinosaur was not the failure of a species.
Instead, dinosaurs may represent a monumental triumph of evolution.
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