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Environment

Old Gobi Bird

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This skull and other bones were unearthed from deposits in the Gobi Desert dating to 80 to 75 million years ago. Paleontologists initially thought the bones were from Mononykus olecranus, a primitive bird. But when the specimens were prepared, says paleontologist Luis Chiappe of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they clearly belonged to a new species. Chiappe and his colleagues named the bird Shuvuuia deserti (shuvuu is Mongolian for "bird"). Like Mononykus, Shuvuuia looks a bit like a dinosaur, which is not surprising since most paleontologists believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs. But Shuvuuia's most interesting trait is decidedly avian. In its skull, the snout and the braincase are loosely connected. The snout can bend up and down independently of the skull, thus allowing Shuvuuia's mouth to open wider. The feature is an early form of the intracranial flexibility found in birds today. Shuvuuia is the most primitive bird to show the trait. "Because Shuvuuia was able to open its mouth wider, it could eat larger prey," Chiappe says. "And that is a feature no dinosaur has."

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