A team of scientists have discovered the oldest known vocal organ of a bird in an Antarctic fossil of a relative of ducks and geese that lived more than 66 million years ago during the age of dinosaurs.
Birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs and are considered living dinosaurs by scientists.
The apparent absence of the vocal organ — called a syrinx – in non-bird dinosaur fossils of the same age suggests that other dinosaurs may not have been able to make noises similar to the bird calls we hear today. That’s according to the research, published in Nature on October 12, 2016.
Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), discovered the fossil syrinx and led the analysis. She said in a statement:
This finding helps explain why no such organ has been preserved in a non-bird dinosaur or crocodile relative. This is another important step to figuring out what dinosaurs sounded like as well as giving us insight into the evolution of birds.
The asymmetrical shape of the fossil syrinx indicates that the extinct species could have made honking noises via two sound sources in the right and left parts of the organ.
The syrinx was found in a fossil of Vegavis iaai, a bird that lived during the Cretaceous (79-145 million years ago). It was discovered on Antarctica’s Vega Island in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the UT scientists noticed that the Vegavis fossil included a syrinx. All other known examples of fossilized syrinxes occur in birds that lived well after non-bird dinosaurs went extinct. During the past two years, the research team searched the dinosaur fossil record for other examples of a syrinx, but so far has found none.
Bottom line: Research published in Nature on October 12, 2016 says the discovery of the fossil vocal organ of an ancient Antarctic bird suggests that dinosaurs couldn’t sing, but maybe honked.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.