The title of this post may seem like a strange one but this is a question worthy of serious, if brief, attention. While records of head crests and ornaments in the archosaurs (including birds like cassowaries), and most famously the pterosaurs, are well known, these have an underlying bony core. What I’m referring to here is purely the keratinous sheath that sheathes the beak of a great many archosaur lineages (and one day I really must get round to noting just how common these are and in just how many places on the archosaurina tree they occur). Is there any evidence that these might themselves have had ornamental structures on them?
Well the short answer is no – there’s no good fossil evidence for this kind of thing. Admittedly only very few exceptional fossils preserve even traces of keratin so we are hardly sampling from a huge range of taxa. Even if they were present, they might be compressed to the point of unrecognisability or be mistaken for a taphomic or ostelogical factor in the specimen. So why then this rhetorical question? Well this is the answer, the wreathed hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus):
As you can clearly see the beak is essentially sculpted close to where it meets the head with a series of expansive bars of keratin. Now I must admit that I have not been able to find any data on the skull morphology online, nor get hold of a specimen, so it must remain a possibility that these bars are associated with underlying patterns in the bones of the skull. However from the look of it I rather suspect not (it’s certainly rather different to other hornbills) and in any case, they certainly raise the spectre of ornamented beaks.
In other words, while we have no evidence at all for any pattern like this in the fossil record, its presence in (admittedly a lone example) an extant bird shows that it is at least possible. This is something therefore that is worth keeping in mind when examining odd-looking beaks in the fossil record, and I daresay is a great excuse for the odd palaeoartist to go a little mad on their next pterosaur or ceratopsian. As ever the world of the living helps to illuminate the animals of the past, though as happens most of the time, it simply muddies the water by providing an odd and obscure example which is yet another possibility that must be considered somewhere along the lines, if admittedly, a remote one.
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