ichthyornis

Ichthyornis dispar by Sydney Mohr:

I had a short break just long enough to get a non-commissioned drawing in of a bird I hadn’t done before; Ichthyornis dispar, a late Cretaceous Ornithurine from the Western Interior Seaway of North America. Seeing as it loosely resembles a gull or seabird of some type, albeit with a set of toothed jaws, and may have fulfilled a similar ecological/behavioural role, I took my inspiration from those that can dive at shallow depths in search of prey items. 

I’ve been wanting to do a marine scene for a long time now! Coloured pencil on blue paper (Many of you may know very well my love of black paper, so I decided to try something a little different!)

Ichthyornis, Rudolph Zallinger, c. 1963

Ichthyornis is not picky. He eats crabs, eggs, sea stars, worms, insects, ammonites, belemnites, seeds, fruit, clams, fresh fish, rotten fish, jellyfish, shrimp, snails, and offal. He steals from distracted Hesperornises, plucks pieces from Pteranodon corpses, nips at the backs of basking mosasaurs, and swallows baby sea turtles whole. He never declines an opportunity. He waddles through mudflats, hunts on Kansas bluffs, wanders deep into the interior, and soars over the Niobraran Sea, always seeking the next mouthful. He’s familiar with everything that creeps and crawls, wriggles and darts, swims and hides, and if it fits in his toothy bill, it’s on the menu.

The Fish bird, Ichthyornis (1872)

Phylum : Chordata
Class : Aves
Subclass : Ichthyornithes
Order : Ichthyornithiformes
Family : Ichthyornithidae
Genus : Ichthyornis
Species : I. dispar

  • Late Cretaceous (95 -85 Ma)
  • 60 cm long and 2 kg (size)
  • Southern North America (map)

Ichthyornis fossils have been found in almost all levels of the Niobrara Chalk, from beds dating to the late Coniacian age (about 89 million years ago) to the Campanian age (about 85 million years ago). Even earlier remains attributed to Ichthyornis have been found in the Greenhorn Formation of Kansas, dating to the early Turonian age (about 93 million years ago), and the Cenomanian of Saskatchewan, dating to about 95 million years ago.

Ichthyornis was first discovered in 1870 by Benjamin Franklin Mudge, a professor from Kansas State Agricultural College who recovered the initial fossils from the North Fork of the Solomon River in Kansas, USA. Mudge was a prolific fossil collector who shipped his discoveries to prominent scientists for study. Mudge had previously had a close partnership with paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. However, as described by S.W. Williston in 1898, Mudge was soon contacted by Othniel Charles Marsh, Cope’s rival in the so-called Bone Wars, a rush to collect and identify fossils in the American West. Marsh wrote to Mudge in 1872 and offered to identify any important fossils free of charge, and to give Mudge sole credit for their discovery. Marsh had been a friend of Mudge when they were younger, so when Mudge learned of Marsh’s request, he changed the address on the shipping crate containing the Ichthyornis specimen (which had already been addressed to Cope and was ready to be sent), and shipped it to Marsh instead. Marsh had narrowly won the prestige of studying and naming the important fossil at the expense of his rival.

However, Marsh did not initially recognize the true importance of the fossil. Soon after receiving it, he reported back to Mudge his opinion that the chalk slab contained the bones of two distinct animals: a small bird, and the toothed jaws of some unknown reptile. Marsh considered the unusual vertebrae of the bird to resemble those of a fish, so he named it Ichthyornis, or “fish bird.” Later in 1872, Marsh described the toothed jaws as a new species of marine reptile, named Colonosaurus mudgei after their discoverer.

By early in 1873, Marsh had recognized his error. Through further preparation and exposure of skull bones from the rock, he found that the toothed jaws must have come from the bird itself and not a marine reptile. Due to the previously unknown features of Ichthyornis (vertebrae concave on either side and teeth), Marsh chose to classify the bird in an entirely new sub-class of birds he called the Odontornithes (or “toothed birds”), and in the new order Ichthyornithes (later Ichthyornithiformes). The only other bird Marsh included in these groups was the newly named Apatornis, which he had previously named as a species of Ichthyornis, I. celer. Mudge later noted the rare and unique quality of these toothed birds (including Hesperornis, which was found to also have teeth by 1877), and the irony of their association with the remains of toothless pterosaurs, flying reptiles which were only known to have had teeth in other regions of the world at that time.

Soon after these discoveries, Ichthyornis was recognized for its significance to the theory of evolution recently published by Charles Darwin. Darwin himself told Marsh in an 1880 letter that Ichthyornis and Hesperornis offered “the best support for the theory of evolution” since he had first published On the Origin of Species in 1859. (While Archaeopteryx was the first known Mesozoic bird and is now known to have also had teeth, the first specimen with a skull was not described until 1884). Others at the time also recognized the implications of a nearly modern bird with reptilian teeth, and feared the controversy it caused. One Yale student described various men and women urging Marsh to conceal Ichthyornis from the public because it lent too much support to evolutionary theory. Many accused Marsh of having tampered with the fossils or intentionally created a hoax by associating reptilian jaws with the body of a bird, accusations that continued to surface even as late as 1967. However, an overwhelming majority of researchers have demonstrated that Marsh’s interpretation of the fossils was correct, and he was fully vindicated by later finds.