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Scientists discover fossils of beaked dinosaurs

The skull of the subadult specimen of the 75-million-year-old Mongolian ornithomimid dinosaur Gallimimus bullatus, which preserves remnants of a beak. The fossilized parts of the beak are preserved at the tip of the snout.  

By Kate Tobin
CNN Science and Technology

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Scientists have identified two dinosaur skeletons with beaks like modern ducks, including a sieve-like structure inside that may have been used for filter-feeding, just as in ducks.

Interestingly, experts do not believe the dinosaurs, called ornithomimids (pronounced "or-nee-THOM-i-mids") are ancestors of ducks. Rather, the beak seems to have evolved twice, first with these dinosaurs and again later with ducks, they say.

The research was conducted by paleontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues. It is published in this week's edition of the British journal Nature.

The scientists discovered the beaks while examining two ornithomimid skeletons, one found in the Gobi Desert last year, the other found at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, in 1995. Both are about 75 million years old.

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When living, the animals probably looked something like an ostrich with a long tail. They were theropod dinosaurs, a group that also includes Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Ornithomimid fossils where first discovered and studied in the 19th century. However, the beaks on those specimens were not preserved. Made of keratin, the same material that makes hair and fingernails, the beaks are "soft tissue," which is rarely preserved over the ages.

Special precautions

The researchers said the two new skeletons were in better shape, with the soft tissue still partially present, and they took special precautions to protect it.

"These two well-preserved specimens allow us to say, for the first time, what the beak covering was on these dinosaurs, as well as to speculate on their feeding behavior," Norell said.

He said researchers are particularly intrigued by the sieve or comb-like filter inside the beak, as it could change paleontologists' ideas about the ways dinosaurs ate.

"This is the first time we've seen this structure in a dinosaur," Norell said. "It implies a lot about where some ornithomimids lived and what they ate.

"Ornithomimids were ecologically tied to food supplies in wetter, moister environments. While we can't definitively say that their feeding behavior was just like that of ducks, it is unlikely that the delicate features of their beaks were used for eating large animals."

• American Museum of Natural History

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