There are dinosaurs among us, and ruthless ones at that. Don't scoff — it's true. Need proof? Look no further than the Great Tit, aka "The Zombie Tit." Why is it called "The Zombie Tit?" Because it's a killing machine with a single mission. To eat brains.
Warning: animal gore ahead.
Most researchers accept that modern birds belong to a specialized subgroup of theropods (the clade encompassing T. rex and Velociraptor), making them perhaps the only branch of dinosaurs to have survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 65 million years ago.
In light of this kinship, it never ceases to amaze me how many people are reluctant to associate birds with dinosaurs. Here's a fun game: next time you're hanging out with a group of friends, casually mention that T. rex is now hypothesized to have sported feathers. Not a few plumes here and there— we're talking literally covered in feathers. Now keep a tally of how many childhoods you've just ruined. People loathe a feathered dinosaur. "Dinosaurs used to be cool," said our own Esther Inglis Arkell on the matter last year, "[then] feathers came in, and now it's like, they're going to ruffle their plumage when they come after me, and that is not scary."
Wrong. I've emphased that last bit because, much as I love her, Esther is wrong. Feathered dinosaurs probably looked scary as all hell. In some instances, feathers may even have served a functionally lethal purpose. And are you seriously going to argue that ruffled plumage isn't scary? That's basically saying that modern birds, themselves, aren't scary. Which is bullshit. Birds, even the ones who eat mostly seeds and nuts, can be terrifying, bloodthirsty killers — and I guarantee you they only look more terrifying, their bloodlust only more apparent, with their feathers afluff. Case in slaughterous point: the Great Tit, pictured here:
DON'T LAUGH. Do not. Laugh. The Great Tit might hear you, and if that happens then there's a chance you'll never laugh again. Because you'll be dead. More than just a passerine bird in the tit family Paridae, the Great Tit is also a killing machine, as ruthless and fearsome as its tyrant dinosaur forebears. Need proof? How's this for proof:
The photo comes via Darren Naish, master of ceremonies at SciAm's Tetrapod Zoology. According to Naish, the picture comes from a recently published Finnish news article that catalogues the slaughter of more than ten Common redpolls by Great Tits. But while the article makes this out to be an "astonishing discovery," Naish insists that this is basically par for the course for the Great "Zombie" Tit — so nicknamed thanks to the bird's proclivity for seeking out hibernating bats, crushing their heads AND EATING THEIR BRAINS:
According to Naish, Great tits feed mostly on seeds and insects. Mostly. "It's powerful and formidable for its size," he writes, and clearly intelligent, given that it is both an "accomplished raider of caches" and "facultative tool-user." It's also a part-time scavenger, says Naish, "its habit of picking at the bones of hoofed mammals being well known. Even better, historical records tell of them eating the fat and other tissues of hanged people." He continues:
Rather less well known is that the Great tit sometimes uses its relatively large size and powerful bill to kill smaller passerines, and indeed Barnes (1975) noted that "A topic of some interest to earlier writers was the alleged murderous tendency of great tits" (p. 112). Barnes described two or three cases where Pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca were "found dead with smashed skulls in nest-boxes taken over by great tits" (p. 112), and also referred to occasions when Great tits had attacked and killed birds that were caught in traps, nets or cages. Caris (1958) reported a case in which an English Great tit was seen flying away with a dead Goldcrest Regulus regulus (one of Europe's smallest passerines: it may weigh just 5g). It had been killed by a peck to the back of the head. Its eyes were pecked out and its skull mangled.
The upshot? Trifle not with the Great Zombie Tit. Do not question its strong ancestral ties with the fearsome dinosaurs of ages past. And let this be a lesson to us all that "feathers" and "fear" should never be regarded as mutually exclusive.
More true, terrifying facts about the Great tit on Naish's blog, Tetrapod Zoology, or his newly launched Wordpress.