Falcatakely

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.


1860s-1970s

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.


2020s

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.

Qinornis

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

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.

Elsornis

The enantiornitheans (“opposite-birds”) were the most diverse and widespread group of Mesozoic birds, existing all around the world throughout the Cretaceous period. They retained claws on their wings and had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and while most of them lacked the lift-generating tail fans of modern birds they appear to have still been very adept fliers.

But Elsornis keni here was doing something different.

Known from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia, about 80 million years ago, this opposite-bird  lived alongside famous dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Protoceratops in what is now the Gobi Desert. Only a single partial specimen has ever been found, so its full life appearance is unknown and this reconstruction is somewhat speculative, but it would have been around the size of a pigeon at 25cm long (10″) – not including any decorative tail feathers it may have had, similar to other enantiornitheans.

It wing and shoulder bones were very odd for an opposite-bird, with proportions that don’t match anything capable of competent flight. Instead Elsornis appears to have been a flightless enantiornithean, a representative of a previously unknown terrestrial lineage.

Eons Roundup 7

It’s another PBS Eons commission roundup day!

The metatherian mammals Pucadelphysand Khasia, and lineart of the sparassodont Paraborhyaena, from “How South America Made the Marsupials”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5doyrUWFbE


The dyrosaurid crocodyliform Acherontisuchus and the bothremydid turtle Puentemys, from “How a Hot Planet Created the World’s Biggest Snake”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-hDNbM-WLk


The early penguin Waimanu and the giant penguin Anthropornis, from “When Penguins Went From The Sky To The Sea”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMArjGQwLvY

Qianshanornis

Many modern predatory birds have enlarged claws on their second toes, similar to those of their paravian dinosaur ancestors – with seriemas being a particularly good example.

Seriemas are part of a lineage known as cariamiformes, highly terrestrial birds that were widespread across most of the world but are today represented today by only two living species in South America. During the Cenozoic this group repeatedly evolved into large predatory flightless forms like the the phorusrhacids and bathornithids, and were probably the closest avians ever got to recreating the “carnivorous theropod” body plan and ecological niche.

And yet none of them ever seem to have experimented with more dromaeosaurid-like claws.

…With one known exception.

Qianshanornis rapax here lived in East China during the mid-Paleocene, about 63 million years ago. It was a small cariamiform, probably around 30cm tall (1″), and is only known from fragmentary fossil material – but part of those fragments was a fairly well-preserved foot. And the bones of its second toe were unlike any other known Cenozoic bird, shaped incredibly similarly to those of dromaeosaurids and suggesting it may have had the same sort of big hyperextendible “sickle claw”.

While it had sturdy legs and short wings, and probably spent a lot of time walking on the ground like other cariamiformes, it was probably also still a fairly strong flier based on the known anatomy of its arms and shoulders.

Unfortunately, though, its head and claws were entirely missing, so without more fossil discoveries it’s hard to say anything definite about its ecology. I’ve restored it here based on other predatory cariamiformes, but since it was also closely related to a herbivorous species it’s not clear whether Qianshanornis was truly a dromaeosaur-mimic or if something else was going on with that unique second toe.

Weird Heads Month #29: Giant Saw-Toothed Birds

The pelagornithids, or “pseudotooth birds”, were a group of large seabirds that were found around the world for almost the entire Cenozoic, existing for at least 60 million years and only going completely extinct just 2.5 million years ago.

Their evolutionary relationships are uncertain and in the past they’ve been considered as relatives of pelicaniformes, albatrosses and petrels, or storks, but more recently they’ve been proposed to have been closer related to ducks and geese instead.

Whatever they were, they were some of the largest birds to ever fly, and many of the “smaller” species still had wingspans comparable to the largest modern flying birds.

But their most notable feature was their beaks. Although at first glance they look like they were lined with pointy teeth, these structures were actually outgrowths of their jaw bones covered with keratinous beak tissue. While these bony spikes would have been useful for holding onto slippery aquatic animals like fish and squid, they were actually hollow and relatively fragile so pelagornithids must have mainly caught smaller prey that couldn’t thrash around hard enough to break anything.

The serrations also only developed towards full maturity, and the “toothless” juveniles may have had a completely different ecology to adults.

Pelagornis chilensis here was one of the larger species of pelagornithid, with a wingspan of 5-6m (16’4″-19’8″), known from the western and northern coasts of South America during the late Miocene about 11-5 million years ago.

Like other pelagornithids it was highly adapted for albatross-like dynamic soaring, with long narrow wings that allowed it to travel huge distances while expending very little energy – but with its proportionally short legs it would have been clumsy on the ground and probably spent the vast majority of its life on the wing, only returning to land to breed.

Bambolinetta

Between about 9 and 7 million years ago, the modern regions of Tuscany, Corsica, and Sardinia were once part of a single island in the ancient Mediterranean Sea.

And since evolution often goes in weird directions on isolated islands, it’s no surprise that some unusual species developed there.

One of which was a very odd duck.

A map of the Mediterranean region during the Late Miocene, showing the location of the Tusco-Sardinian island.
From fig 4 in Williams, M. F. (2008). Cranio-dental evidence of a hominin-like hyper-masticatory apparatus in Oreopithecus bambolii. Was the swamp ape a human ancestor?. Bioscience Hypotheses, 1(3), 127-137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bihy.2008.04.001

Bambolinetta lignitifila lived during the Late Miocene, about 7.5 million years ago. Known from a single partial skeleton discovered in the mid-1800s, it was initially thought to be a fairly normal dabbling duck and wasn’t properly re-examined until 2014, when its strange features were finally recognized.

It was a medium-sized duck, probably around 50cm long (1’8″), but it had much chunkier wing bones than its relatives, with noticeably shortened forearms – looking much more like the wings of an auk or penguin, and suggesting that it was a similar sort of wing propelled diver. This is incredibly weird for a duck, since every other known diving species uses feet for propulsion instead, and so Bambolinetta may be the only known waterfowl to ever develop this type of underwater locomotion.

It’s not clear whether it was still capable of flying or not. There were few predators in its habitat, so it may well have become completely flightless – and that could also be the reason it later went extinct. Sea levels in the region began to drop around 7 million years ago, reconnecting the Tusco-Sardinian island to the European mainland, and Bambolinetta‘s high level of ecological specialization and its potential island tameness would have given it little defence against an influx of new unfamiliar predators.

Palaelodus

The closest living relatives to modern flamingos are, surprisingly, the grebes. But this relationship is especially ancient, with their last common ancestor probably living sometime between the end of the Cretaceous and the early Eocene.

Such an ancestor is thought to have been a highly aquatic swimming bird, more grebe-like than flamingo-like, but there are few fossils of intermediate forms between that and the modern wading flamingos – with the exception of a group known as the palaelodids.

Palaelodus ambiguus here lived about 29-12 million years ago in Europe, from the early Oligocene to the mid-Miocene. It was similar in size to a small flamingo at about 80cm tall (2’7″), but had proportionally shorter legs and appears to have been capable of both wading and swimming in different depths of water, leading to its nickname of “swimming flamingo”.  (Even though modern flamingos do occasionally swim too!)

Its straight pointed beak also suggests it had a much less specialized diet than its modern cousins, probably feeding on small aquatic animals like snails, insect larvae, and fish.

Various other palaelodid species have been found all around the world – even as far as New Zealand – so they seem to have been incredibly common and successful birds during their time. The last definite remains of this group come from the late Miocene, about 7 million years ago, although one Australian fossil may represent a late-surviving relict population that existed until just half a million years ago in the mid-Pleistocene.