The ibis has a special ability to find food underground by detecting vibrations with their beak - a skill they inherited from their dinosaur ancestors, according to a new study.

The birds use cells hidden inside their beaks to pick up vibrations from the soil or sand that is their traditional hunting ground.

Tiny cavities that would have housed those cells have also been found in non-probing birds like ostriches and emus, suggesting they also inherited the trait from common prehistoric ancestors that possessed the "superpower", according to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Many modern ibises hunt for rubbish in cities instead of seafood in wetlands. Picture: John Grainger
Many modern ibises hunt for rubbish in cities instead of seafood in wetlands. Picture: John Grainger

"It seems that (some prehistoric birds) have this organ and were able to use the sense of remote touch to probe and locate prey as well, which is really cool, because it just shows that this is really old," study author Carla du Toit told the New York Times.

While the so-called bin chicken is often mocked by inner-city Australians for its appetite for garbage, the natural habitat of the ibis is in marshlands and riverbanks where the skill for finding mussels and crayfish hiding in the soil comes in handy.

The birds use cells hidden inside their beaks to pick up vibrations from the soil or sand that is their traditional hunting ground. Picture: John Grainger
The birds use cells hidden inside their beaks to pick up vibrations from the soil or sand that is their traditional hunting ground. Picture: John Grainger

The bird's brain region is also enlarged to process the sensory information from the beak - a characteristic that ostriches and emus lack.

Kiwis and some shorebirds also have the special vibration-sensitive beaks.

Some of the birds in the study can feel the vibrations directly, while others pick up signals pinging off buried shells in a way similar to echolocation.

Originally published as Bin chicken's bizarre 'superpower'


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