While birds are one of the few animal groups to have achieved powered flight, they’re also very prone to losing their aerial abilities. Many times over their evolutionary history, multiple different bird lineages have convergently become secondarily flightless – and Patagopteryx deferrariisi was one of the earliest known examples of this.

Living during the Late Cretaceous, about 86-84 million years ago, in what is now the northern part of Argentine Patagonia in South America, Patagopteryx was roughly the size of a modern chicken at around 50cm long.

When it was first discovered it was classified as a ratite, but soon after it was recognized as actually being a much earlier type of bird, an early ornithuromorph only distantly related to any modern groups.

It had small wings, little-to-no keel, and no wishbone, indicating it lacked the large powerful musculature required for flight. Its legs were quite long, with large feet with all four toes facing forward – proportions that suggest it was built more for walking than for high-speed running.

Growth rings in its bones also show that it had a much slower growth rate than modern birds, taking several years to reach adult size.

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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.

Island Weirdness #04 – Gargantuavis philoinos

By far the biggest island in the Late Cretaceous European archipelago, the Ibero-Armorican island (sometimes also known as the Ibero-Occitan island) was made up of most of the Iberian Peninsula and France and was larger than modern-day Madagascar.

Around 73-71 million years ago one of the residents of this island was the aptly-named Gargantuavis – the largest known Mesozoic bird, and probably an example of island gigantism.

Although only known from a few isolated bones, it’s estimated to have been slightly larger than a modern cassowary, somewhere in the region of 2m tall (6′6″). At that size it would have also been secondarily flightless, which is surprising for a bird that was living alongside larger fast-moving theropods like abelisaurs.

Not much else is known about it due to the scarce remains, but it seems to have had a long slender neck and probably had a small head. Its hips were fairly broad, suggesting it wasn’t capable of running very fast, and it was likely a slow-moving herbivore that was a fairly rare member of its ecosystem.

Exactly where it belongs in the bird evolutionary tree is also unclear, with the best current guess being “some sort of euornithean”.