The evolution of falcons is rather poorly understood. Thanks to genetic evidence we know that they’re closely related to seriemas, parrots, and passerines, but their fossil record is patchy and little is known about the early members of their lineage.

But a group knows as masillaraptorids are giving us a rare glimpse at what some early falconiforms were up to. Known from the Eocene of Europe, these long-legged predatory birds seem to have been caracara-like terrestrial hunters specializing in chasing down prey on foot – although their wings and tails indicate they were also still strong fliers.

Danielsraptor phorusrhacoides lived during the early Eocene, about 55 million years ago, in what is now eastern England. Although only known from partial remains, it was probably around 45-60cm long (~1’6″-2′), and it had a large hooked beak with a surprising amount of convergent similarity to those of the flightless South American terror birds.

Its mixture of falcon-like and seriema-like features may indicate that the common ancestor of both of these bird groups was a similar sort of leggy ground-hunting predator.

April Fools 2023: How Titanis Lost The Right To Bear Arms

Huge, flightless, and carnivorous, the phorusrhacids (or terror birds) were some of the largest apex predators in South America during its Cenozoicsplendid isolation” as an island continent – and they were possibly the closest that birds ever came to reclaiming the ecological roles of their extinct non-avian theropod dinosaur relatives. 

And for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a hypothesis that they’d even re-evolved clawed hands.

This idea was based on the wing bones of Titanis walleri, the only terror bird known to have dispersed northwards during the Great American Biotic Interchange when North and South America became connected via the Isthmus of Panama.

Living during the Pliocene and Pleistocene in Florida and Texas, between about 5 and 1.8 million years ago, Titanis stood around 1.5-1.8m tall (~5-6′) and was heavily built, with long strong legs and a massive hooked beak. Remains of its small wings were incomplete and fragmentary but had seemingly unusual joints, with what looked like a stiffer wrist and more flexible “fingers” than other birds, which led paleontologist Robert Chandler to propose in 1994 that this terror bird species had modified its wings into clawed grasping arms similar to those of dromaeosaurs, used to restrain prey animals while its beak tore them apart.

But the idea of a giant murder-bird with added meathook-hands only lasted about a decade. Further investigation in 2005 showed that Titanis‘ arms weren’t that weird after all – the same sort of joints are found in terror birds’ closest living relatives, the seriemas, and so Titanis really had the same sort of small vestigial wings as many other large flightless birds.

…However, there still could have been some claws on there. Many modern birds actually have one or two small claws on their hands that aren’t visible under their feathers, and terror birds like Titanis having something like that going on is completely plausible – they just wouldn’t have been using them for any sort of specalized predatory function.

Strange Symmetries #23: Convergent Earvolution

Although it’s not visible externally, owls have one of the most striking modern examples of asymmetry. The ears of many species are uneven, with the right ear opening positioned higher up than the left, giving them the ability to pinpoint the sounds of their prey much more accurately.

But surprisingly this isn’t a unique anatomical trait that only ever evolved once in their common ancestor.

Instead, multiple different lineages of owls have actually convergently evolved wonky ears somewhere between four and seven separate times.

The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus), also known as Tengmalm’s owl, is a small 25cm long (~10″) true owl found across much of the northern parts of both Eurasia and North America. While most other owls’ asymmetrical ear openings are formed just by soft tissue, the boreal owl’s lopsided ears are actually visible in the bones of its skull.

But despite how many times owls have convergently evolved asymmetrical ears, and how successful this adaptation has been for them, for a long time it seemed to be something that no other animals have ever mimicked.

In the early 2000s asymmetric ears were reported in the skulls of some troodontid dinosaurs, which seem to have been nocturnal hearing-based hunters similar to owls, but proper details on this feature still haven’t been formally published.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, another example was finally announced.

The night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is a small ground-dwelling parrot found in Australia, close to the same size as the boreal owl at around 22cm long (~9″). Critically endangered and very elusive, it’s rarely seen and little is known about it – and it was presumed extinct for much of the 20th century, until more recent sightings of living individuals confirmed that the species is still hanging on.

Recent studies of preserved museum specimens have revealed that it seems to have poor night vision but excellent hearing, and that its right ear opening is noticeably asymmetrical, bulging out sideways from its skull. Much like owls the night parrot relies on acute directional hearing to navigate in darkness, but since its diet consists mainly of seeds it’s probably not using this ability to locate food sources. Instead it may be listening out to keep track of the precise locations of other parrots, and for the approach of predators – so its sharp sense of hearing may be the reason this unique bird has so far just barely managed to survive the presence of invasive cats and foxes.

Spectember 2022 #03: Swimming Hummingbirds

Today’s #Spectember concepts come from three submitters: anonymous, Jonas Werpachowski, and Novaraptoria.

A digital illustration of a speculative future aquatic bird descended from hummingbirds, laying on its belly. It has a long beak with tooth-like serrations that give it a crocodilian appearance. Its body is penguin-like, with large flipper-wings, and it has relatively tiny webbed feet and a stubby tail. Its plumage is iridescent green and white, with a bright purple patch on its throat.
Humdertaker (Suchomergus pollinctor)

Despite having a convergent resemblance to penguins or gannetwhales, the humdertaker (Suchomergus pollinctor) is actually a distant descendant of modern hummingbirds.

Continue reading “Spectember 2022 #03: Swimming Hummingbirds”


Around 11 million years ago, during the late Miocene, much of what is now northern Honshu in Japan was submerged under fairly deep ocean waters. This offshore environment was inhabited by a variety of ancient sea-going tetrapods such as turtles, desmostylians, seal-like allodesmines, archaic baleen whales, and early oceanic dolphins… and also one very unexpected bird.

Meet the flightless marine swan.

Annakacygna hajimei, also known as the Annaka short-winged swan, was the same size as a modern black swan at about 1.2m long (~4′), but had a combination of features unlike any of of its living close relatives. Its head was proportionally large, and it had a long spoon-shaped bill like a shoveler duck, lined with comb-like structures for filter-feeding on plankton. It also had widened hips that would have helped keep it stable floating in rough waters, its tail was highly mobile and muscular, and its feet resembled those of diving birds like loons.

With thickened heavy bones and shortened forearms it was clearly completely unable to fly, but its reduced wings appear to have been highly specialized rather than just vestigial. Its shoulders were extra flexible while its wrists had a more limited range of motion, allowing it to fold its wings into a distinctive half-raised position similar to modern mute swans.

It probably used its wings and tail to perform elaborate “busking” visual displays, and also to carry and protect its young on its back while out at sea – basically making itself into a living swan boat.


Modern birds’ upper beaks are made up mostly from skull bones called the premaxilla, but the snouts of their earlier non-avian dinosaur ancestors were instead formed by large maxilla bones.

And Falcatakely forsterae here had a very unusual combination of these features.

Living in Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, it was around 40cm long (1’4″) and was part of a diverse lineage of Mesozoic birds known as enantiornitheans. These birds had claws on their wings and usually had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and many species also had ribbon-like display feathers on their tails instead of lift-generating fans.

Falcatakely had a long tall snout very similar in shape to a modern toucan, unlike any other known Mesozoic bird, with the surface texture of the bones indicating it was also covered by a keratinous beak. But despite this very “modern” face shape the bone arrangement was still much more similar to other enantiornitheans – there was a huge toothless maxilla making up the majority of the beak, with a small tooth-bearing premaxilla at the tip.

This suggests that there was more than one potential way for early birds to evolve modern-style beaks, and there may have been much more diversity in these animals’ facial structures than previously thought.

Retro vs Modern #04: Archaeopteryx lithographica

Archaeopteryx lithographica was first discovered in the 1860s, still in the early days of our understanding of dinosaurs, and was a timely example of the sort of transitional form first proposed by Charles Darwin only a couple of years earlier. For over a century it was a famous icon of evolution, and has been part of a lot of weird drama over the years – it’s been central to arguments about bird origins, was accused of being a fake, and one specimen even vanished under mysterious circumstances.


At the time of its discovery Archaeopteryx was actually fairly quickly accepted as demonstrating an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds… but sadly this view wasn’t to last.

In the early 20th century opinion shifted towards birds not being dinosaurs but instead descended from “thecodont” reptiles (what we’d now call early archosaurs and pseudosuchians). And so for a long time Archaeopteryx ended up being depicted as simply the “first bird”, a half-reptile half-avian curiosity.

Reconstructions of it from this time period varied from very good to kind of awkward depending on how much the artist was trying to emphasize its reptilian ancestry, commonly featuring wonky-fingered wings and a scaly lizard-like face. It was also frequently depicted with bright gaudy parrot-like coloration, with a specific yellow-and-blue color scheme becoming a “paleoart meme” so prolific that it would eventually inspire the design of a Pokémon.


After decades of stagnation the dinosaur-bird link was resurrected in the early 1970s, with the discovery of the bird-like Deinonychus kicking off the Dinosaur Renaissance. Along with the explosion of spectacularly feathered dinosaur fossils from China in the mid-1990s, Archaeopteryx finally began to be properly presented as a feathered dinosaur again.

Continued study of the known Archaeopteryx specimens in the last couple of decades has vastly improved our knowledge of what this animal would have looked like, revealing previously unknown features like the exact plumage arrangement on its wings and legs, and even potentially some details about its coloration.

Living in southern Germany during the Late Jurassic, about 150-148 million years ago, Archaeopteryx inhabited what was then an island archipelago in a shallow tropical sea. It grew to around 50cm long (~1’8″) and was almost entirely covered with pennaceous feathers, externally probably just looking like a long-tailed bird.

It had broad wings, with asymmetrical flight feathers similar to those of modern birds but with more extensive coverts, some of which were probably a matte black color. Its legs also sported long “feather trousers” and a “raptor“-like hyperextensible second toe, and there was a slight forked shape to the tip of its tail.

Arguments have gone back and forth about how well it was actually able to fly, with current thinking being that it made short bursts of active flapping flight a little like a modern pheasant – but since its shoulder joints were less mobile than those of modern birds it must have used a different sort of flight stroke to generate lift.

It’s no longer always considered to have been the “first bird”, or even to have been the direct ancestor of any modern birds. Instead it represents an offshoot lineage of early birds (or very-bird-like dinosaurs) that was just one part of a still-expanding flock of feathery fossil discoveries.

Spectember 2021 – Slime Snouters & Megaphone Birds

Today’s #Spectember concept is brought to you by @thecreaturecodex , who wanted to see a depiction of something from The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades:

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66 million years ago, the end-Cretaceous mass extinction wiped out all dinosaurs except for the avian bird lineage.

…Or did it?

But I’m not talking about the dubious claims of non-avian dinosaur fossils found in places they shouldn’t be. This is about something else entirely: an unassuming little bird known as Qinornis paleocenica.

Living in Northwest China during the mid-Paleocene, about 61 million years ago, Qinornis was roughly pigeon-sized at around 30cm long (12″). It’s known only from a few bones from its legs and feet, but those bones are unusual enough to hint that it might have been something very special.

Uniquely for a Cenozoic bird, some of its foot bones weren’t fully fused together. This sort of incomplete fusion is seen in both juvenile modern birds and in adults of non-avian ornithurine birds from the Cretaceous – and the Qinornis specimen seems to have come from an adult animal.

If it was fully grown with unfused feet, then that would suggest it was actually part of a “relic” lineage living 5 million years after the mass extinction, surviving for quite some time longer than previously thought.

The last known non-avian dinosaur.


Brontornis burmeisteri was one of the largest flightless birds known to have ever existed, standing around 2.8m tall (9’2″) and estimated to have weighed 400kg (~880lbs).

Known from the early and mid-Miocene of Argentina, between about 17 and 11 million years ago, it’s traditionally considered to be one of the carnivorous terror birds that dominated predatory roles in South American ecosystems during the long Cenozoic isolation of the continent.

But Brontornis might not actually have been a terror bird at all – it may have instead been a giant cousin of ducks and geese.

The known fossil material is fragmentary enough that it’s still hard to tell for certain, but there’s some evidence that links it to the gastornithiformes, a group of huge herbivorous birds related to modern waterfowl.

If it was a gastornithiform, that would mean it represents a previously completely unknown lineage of South American giant flightless galloanserans. And, along with the gastornithids and the mihirungs, it would represent a third time that group of birds convergently evolved this sort of body plan and ecological role on entirely different continents during the Cenozoic.