How Bird Beaks Got Their Start As Dinosaur Snouts : The Two-Way Hoping to help trace the history of how velociraptors evolved into birds, researchers at Harvard and Yale may have tracked a key beak transformation to two genes.

How Bird Beaks Got Their Start As Dinosaur Snouts

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We have a new answer to an old question - which came first, the chicken or the egg?


The answer - a dinosaur. Chickens, like all birds, descended from dinosaurs.

INSKEEP: And one team of scientists recently managed to reverse that evolution just a bit. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The ancestors of birds are a group of dinosaurs that includes the velociraptor. These meat-eaters had long snouts, small brains and eyes, lots of teeth. Somehow, they transformed into birds, which have none of those things. This fascinates Bhart-Anjan Bhullar. He's a researcher at Yale University who wants to understand how birds became birds.

BHART-ANJAN BHULLAR: What's the deep history of sort of bird-iness, and how did the different parts of their body plan form?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's interested in one bird part in particular.

BHULLAR: The bird beak.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To hunt for clues about the origin of the beak, he and his colleagues studied various kinds of animal embryos and zeroed in on two genes. They're active in the middle of the face-forming region of bird embryos. Bhullar did an experiment to see what would happen if they blocked the effect of that activity in chicken embryos. Bhullar says he remembers the night he put those developing chicks under a microscope and saw they had unusual, broad snouts.

BHULLAR: That was a pretty remarkable moment. That's a moment that will stay with me, I think.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Instead of the normal bone structure that would form a beak, these proto-chickens had a pair of small, rounded bones.

BHULLAR: That looked, for all the world, like those in a dinosaur like archaeopteryx or velociraptor or any other reptile, like an alligator.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A report on the study appears in the journal Evolution, but don't expect them to bring back dinosaurs in the lab. That would be a whole lot harder than just trying to restore some of the traits that existed in the first birds. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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