Meanwhile, a 46,000 years old bird was so well preserved by the fossil hunters that they tricked scientists into believing that it had died a day ago.
Researchers have classified the fossil under the name of Asteriornis, but it is also known under the less formal nickname of Wonderchicken.
On the work done, the team reported in a paper presented in the journal Nature.
Artist's reconstruction of the Wonderchicken, or Asteriornis maastrichtensis.
Birds first showed up on the paleontological scene around 150 million years ago, making their debut with toothsome terrors like Archaeopteryx that likely resembled their more reptilian-looking dinosaurian ancestors, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. A previously reported Antarctic fossil find is about as old, but its precise age and place on the evolutionary tree are not clear.
"Asteriornis seems to be close to the most recent common ancestor of Galloanserae, so it seems like all 300 living species of chicken-like birds and 177-living species of duck-like birds may be descended from an Asteriornis-like bird", said Field. After it was donated to a museum, Field tried CT scanning to get a better look at those bones. When the team scanned the rock, they hoped the data would reveal more information about the limb bones.
At the time, the region was covered by a shallow sea, and conditions were similar to modern tropical beaches.
Back when fearsome dinosaurs roamed the land, an unimpressive avian, about the size of a very small duck, somehow survived alongside them - eking out a life along a prehistoric European seashore. Its legs were long and slender, and it was evidently a shore bird and it could probably fly, Field said. It's a reminder that the bird lived till the Earth just before the asteroid impact, and a reference to the fact that the "miracle chicken" had the traits of poultry (according to mythology, Asteria turns into a quail to escape from the amorous Zeus). "This fossil provides our earliest direct glimpse of what modern birds were like during the initial stages of their evolutionary history", Chen said.
When that rock fell from the sky, violently ending the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, this slight "wonderchicken", or some of its relatives, must have managed to live on to produce the incredible spectrum of birds we know and love today. It was small, and its legs suggest it did not live in trees, an important factor since forests were thought to have been devastated by wildfires.
Now, while Asteriornis may be the oldest known crown bird, it can not be said that all birds living today are descended from it.
Fossils are snapshots, she said, and "right now our photo album has nearly nothing in it" from this time period that relates to modern-day birds.
Hence the importance of the new fossil, which was found in the Maastricht Formation of Belgium.