Featured Fossil: Ichthyornis dispar

By Christina Byrd, Paleontology Collections Manager, Sternberg Museum of Natural History

Before his first day of college in the summer of 2014, incoming Fort Hays State University (FHSU) freshman Kris Super found a fossil of a bird skeleton in the Late Cretaceous chalk deposits in Gove County, Kansas. Prior to college, Kris had already spent years collecting fossils in western Kansas and was familiar with Western Interior Seaway fauna. Though Super didn’t think too much about the fossil when saw the first bones, he soon had a suspicion the fossil may be a bird.  He removed a medium-sized slab of rock containing the fossil and took it back to his dorm for a closer look with better tools. As he began to prepare the fossil, he uncovered the coracoid and the sternum – two bones that are distinct in birds. With this discovery, Super knew he had something special. He continued to uncover the fossil until he found the bones of the skull.

Figure 1. Ichthyornis dispar specimen prior to CT-scanning. Photo credit: Laura Wilson
Figure 2. Skeletal reconstruction by O.C. Marsh of Ichthyornis dispar based on the holotype.

Wilson and Super joined a collaboration with a team of experts from Yale University, the University of Kansas, the Alabama Museum of Natural History, Tuscaloosa, and the McWane Science Center, Birmingham, AL studying bird evolution. This team used this fossil and other specimens held in museum collections to reveal the significant role that Ichthyornis dispar plays in understanding the transition from non-avian dinosaurs to modern birds. It turns out I. dispar has a combination of dinosaur-like and bird-like characteristics in its skull that illustrate the transition, and the Sternberg Museum fossil was key to understanding this.

Figure 3. Image of Kris Super and HaysMed staff the day of scanning the specimen. Photo credit: Laura Wilson

The addition of the Sternberg Museum specimen to the study not only increases our understanding about Ichthyornis, but also aids in further understanding modern bird evolution. This success story emphasizes the power of collaboration, enthusiasm, and curiosity in advancing and forever changing the understanding of natural history.

To learn more:

Field, D.J., Hanson, M., Burnham, D.A., Wilson, L.E., Super, K., Ehret, D.J., Ebersole, J.A., and Bhullar, B.A.S. (2018). Complete Ichthyornis skull illuminates mosaic assembly of the avian head. Nature, 557, 96–100.

Fort Hays State University. (2018, May 30). FHSU professor and graduate publish in prestigious journal Nature.