Feathered Dinos Were Diverse Like Darwin's Finches

This new species, Leptorhynchos ("little jaw") gaddisi, belongs to a broader group of bird-like dinosaurs characterized by toothless beaks and long, slender claws. (Image credit: Nicholas R. Longrich/Yale)

Flightless feathered dinosaurs with parrotlike beaks and long, skinny claws that scampered around North America may have been the Darwin's finches of the Late Cretaceous era.

Fossils of at least five species of vegetarian birdlike dinosaurs known as caenagnathids have been found from West Texas to Canada with wide variation in their beak shapes and body size, giving scientists clues about how the small creatures could coexist by carving out different dietary niches.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was famously inspired by the diversity of beak shapes among finches on the Galapagos Islands, which he took as a sign that the birds had somehow adapted to the specific environments where they lived. More recent research has shown that Darwin's finches can evolve quite quickly. For instance, one species shrunk its beak size to better compete with another bird for small seeds in a mere two decades. [Avian Ancestors: Dinosaurs That Learned to Fly]

Millions of years ago, different species of caenagnathids may have similarly adjusted their beak size across western North America.

"Each species has a different beak structure. You could have a lot of different species in one environment, because they ate different kinds of foods, which is how different species of Darwin's finches coexist," Nicholas R. Longrich, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, said in a statement. "So, in a way, the evolution of modern dinosaurs — birds — provides insight into ancient, extinct dinosaurs."

Fossil collectors in Texas recently found a new species of the turkey-sized dinosaur, dubbed Leptorhynchos gaddisi, in the Aguja Formation near Big Bend National Park. The 75-million-year-old remains of this species suggest it had a more rounded chin and a less upturned beak than its Canadian relative, Leptorhynchos elegans. The short deep mandible of the new species also suggests it ate tougher, more fibrous plants than its neighbors known as Chirostenotes and Caenagnathus, researchers say.

"These are subtle differences, but they mean we're dealing with different species," Longrich said. "If you look at modern birds, one of the things that distinguishes a crow from a raven, or two types of albatrosses from each other, is the beak proportions. We can do the same thing with dinosaurs that we do with modern birds, and identify them using beak shapes."

Considering that small dinosaurs have a poor fossil record in North America, having at least five known specialized species of caenagnathids — some of them living side-by-side — suggests the group had relatively high diversity, the researchers say.

The findings were detailed April 26 in the Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.