Cretaceous-Period Bird Had Hyper-Elongated Tongue
The bony tongue of the newly-identified enantiornithine bird species, Brevirostruavis macrohyoideus, was nearly as long as its head.
Brevirostruavis macrohyoideus lived alongside dinosaurs in what is now northeastern China some 120 million years ago (Early Cretaceous period).
The bird had a relatively short beak, small peg-shaped teeth, and an extremely elongate bony hyoid apparatus (tongue bones).
It belongs to Enantiornithes, the most diverse group of birds known in the Cretaceous period.
“We see a lot of variation in the size and shape of the skulls of enantiornithine birds and that probably reflects the great diversity of the foods they ate and how they caught their food,” said Dr. Min Wang, a researcher with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“Now with this fossil, we see that it’s not just their skulls, but their tongues that also vary.”
The well-preserved skeleton of Brevirostruavis macrohyoideus was recovered from the Jiufotang Formation in Xiaotaizi village, Liaoning province, China.
“This extinct short-beaked, big-tongued bird is the earliest example of a bird being able to stick its tongue out.” the paleontologists said.
“Of course, this feature makes one wonder why this bird would be sticking its tongue out.”
“We hypothesize that Brevirostruavis macrohyoideus might have used this feature for catching insects in the same way that living woodpeckers use their tongues to get insects out of holes in bark, wood, and tree branches.”
“Alternatively, the bird might have been feeding on pollen or nectar-like liquids from plants in the forest where it lived.”
“Animals experiment evolutionarily with what they have available,” added Dr. Thomas Stidham, a researcher with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“This bird evolved a long tongue using the bones it inherited from its dinosaur ancestors, and living birds evolved longer tongues with the bones that they have.”
“This situation demonstrates the power of evolution, with birds using two different evolutionary pathways to solve the same problem of making a long tongue to stick out of their mouths.”
The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Anatomy.
Zhiheng Li et al. Novel evolution of a hyper-elongated tongue in a Cretaceous enantiornithine from China and the evolution of the hyolingual apparatus and feeding in birds. Journal of Anatomy, published online December 1, 2021; doi: 10.1111/joa.13588