The non-avian dinosaur Anchiornis and tinamou, a primitive modern bird, with snouts rendered transparent to show the premaxillary and palatine bones. (John Conway)
All birds have beaks. That’s because they’re genetically programmed to—and rewriting those instructions could teach us a lot about how our fowl friends evolved.
A rewrite is exactly what scientists from Yale and Harvard have accomplished, according to a study published in the journal Evolution. A team lead by Yale paleontologist and developmental biologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar and Harvard developmental biologist Arhat Abzahov turned the beaks of chicken embryos into dinosaur snouts by suppressing certain proteins.
“Our goal here,” says Bhullar, “was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not create a 'dino-chicken' simply for the sake of it.”
Early on in a bird’s development, certain genes start dictating its beak shape. The team artificially stifled these. As a result, their beaks developed as snouts that strongly resemble those of the poultry’s dinosaurian ancestors (though they still lacked teeth).
A bird’s beak is a unique evolutionary innovation, and key to birds’ astonishing worldwide diversity. “The beak is a crucial part of the avian feeding apparatus, and is the component of the avian skeleton that has perhaps diversified most extensively and most radically—consider flamingos, parrots, hawks, pelicans, and hummingbirds, among others,” Bhullar explained. “Yet little work has been done on what exactly a beak is, anatomically, and how it got that way either evolutionarily or developmentally.”
If Jack Horner gets his way, this could only be the beginning. In 2009, Horner—a Montana-based paleontologist who’s been excavating dino fossils for decades and served as an advisor for all four Jurassic Park films—published How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever. Among other things, the bestselling book promotes using similar genetic suppression techniques to create what he’s called a "chickenosaurus."
Bhullar and company decided against letting their dino-faced chickens hatch. Still, the researcher maintains that even with those facial modifications, the creatures would have been “far less weird than many breeds of chicken developed by chicken hobbyists and breeders.”