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Ancient bird painting

Advanced imaging techniques provide earliest evidence of fruit-eating by ancient bird

Key Points

  • Fossilised seeds from this study prove seed dispersal was evident in the earliest bird evolution, with this early diversification of birds indicating a significant event in the history of land ecosystems. 

  • The reconstructed Jeholornis skull showed a beak and traits similar to modern birds. There were also features like reduced teeth which are no longer present in modern birds. 

  • Synchrotron CT and neutron tomography deliver capability for the non-invasive analysis of dense rock, proving extremely useful in reconstructing and analysing fossils. 

International palaeontologists have used advanced imaging techniques at ANSTO’S Australian Synchrotron to clarify the role that the earliest fruit-eating birds of the Cretaceous period may have had in helping fruit-producing plants to evolve. 

By comparing the skull shapes and stomach contents of fossil birds using synchrotron CT on the Imaging and Medical beamline, a large international team led by researchers from Oxford University, the Field Museum of Natural History in the US and Lin Yi University in China, confirmed that the species Jeholornis may have helped contribute to the spread of the plants that dominate the world today. 

A) Left and (B) right views of the 3D reconstructed model of the skull. (C) Left and (D) ventral views of the reassembled 3D model of the skull. (E) Left and (F) ventral views of the 2D cranial reconstruction. (G) Photograph of the skull. (H) Dorsal view of the reassembled 3D model of the mandible. Credit: eLife 11:e74751 

Senior instrument scientist Dr Joseph Bevitt, who frequently contributes to international palaeontology research using nuclear techniques, assisted with the measurements for a paper that was published in eLife. 

After fossilised birds were found that appeared to have plant remain scattered within and around them, scientists wanted to clarify if the creature had been eating seeds or eating fruit containing seeds. 

Eating fruit and excreting whole seeds could have helped plants to spread and evolve. 

Their findings suggested that Jeholonis was eating different foods at different times of the year. When fruit was available, it would have eaten whole fruits, seeds and all, and then excreted the un-crushed seeds. When fruit wasn’t in season, it would have eaten something different - and harder - and relied on a part known as a gizzard to crush them. 

Seeds preserved in the abdominal area of selected Jeholornis prima specimens. Credit: eLife 11:e74751
Seeds preserved in the abdominal area of selected Jeholornisprima specimens. Credit: eLife 11:e74751 

“We took the 120-million-year-old fossils and used 3D imaging to reconstruct Jeholornis’s skull,” explained Dr Joseph Bevitt. 

“The skull showed they had a beak and other traits like modern birds, but also had reduced teeth, which are no longer present in modern birds. These traits hinted at a ‘modern’ diet, but what really backed up the findings were fossilised seeds in their stomachs. 

“These seeds were intact and showed no evidence of grinding, proving that Jeholornis ate whole fruit, ” Dr Bevitt added.  

The first author of the study, Dr Han Hu, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University explained, “The research is so important because the early diversification of birds was a major event in the history of land ecosystems and this study proves seed dispersal was evident in the earliest bird evolution. 

“Birds are important consumers of fruit today, and play important roles in seed dispersal, but so far there has not been direct evidence of fruit consumption by the world’s very first birds,” Dr Hu said. 

“In fact, it was thought until now that they only ate grains, so this discovery demonstrates they played a crucial role in the world as we know it today. In fact, they are highly likely to be partly responsible for the plants and fruits we all know and recognise,” she added. Read more from Oxford University. 

Both synchrotron CT and neutron tomography are extremely useful in the reconstruction and analysis of fossils as they can provide information from dense rock non-invasively,” said Dr Bevitt. 

“At the end of the day this research proves we really need to delve deeper into the interactions between birds and the plants in this period,” Dr Bevitt said. 

“It’s really quite remarkable that the role they played 120 million years ago may have changed the world,” he added. 

Other contributing organisations included the University of New England, Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature (China) and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (China). 

Content for this article was sourced from press information from the Field Museum 


Dr Han Hu

Dr Han Hu (Oxford Uni)


InstrumentImaging and Medical Beamline (AS)
FacilitiesAustralian Synchrotron
InstrumentMicro-Computed Tomography Beamline (AS)