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.

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.


Conflicto antarcticus, a recently-named waterfowl bird from the earliest Palaeocene of Antarctica (~65-64 mya).

Standing around 50cm tall (1′8″), it had a slender body, long legs, a long neck, and a narrow goose-like beak. It also had an unusual pair of bony bumps on its skull which may have supported some sort of small crest superficially similar to the knob on the head of the modern magpie goose.

Temperatures in Antarctica at the time were much warmer than today, and the area where its fossils were found would have been a temperate estuary or river delta. It was probably an omnivorous wading bird, feeding on vegetation, small fish, and invertebrates in shallow freshwater.

Although it somewhat resembled a presbyornithid it was actually part of an even earlier branch of the waterfowl evolutionary tree – so its ancestors must have originated much further back in the Late Cretaceous – and their similar body shapes hint that the common ancestor of all waterfowl may also have been a rather leggy bird. Conflicto’s closest known relative might actually be the similarly-aged Anatalavis (which was previously though to be a primitive magpie-goose) from North America and Europe, suggesting that its lineage was quite widespread and already taking advantage of vacant niches in the immediate wake of the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction.

Island Weirdness #16 – Garganornis ballmanni

While some of the main big herbivores on the Late Miocene Gargano-Scontrone island(s) were the larger species of Hoplitomeryx, they weren’t the only animals filling that ecological niche.

Garganornis was an enormous anatid bird, closely related to modern ducks, geese, and swans. Although only known from fragments of its skeleton it’s estimated to have stood up to 1.5m tall (4′11″), making it the largest known waterfowl to have ever lived.

It probably reached such a size thanks to the lack of large terrestrial predators, and possibly also as protection against the island eagles and owls – literally growing too big for them to be able to eat.

It was flightless, with small wings, and had reduced webbing between its toes, suggesting it spent most of its time walking around on land. It also had bony knobs on its wrists that would have been used to give some extra force to wing-slaps when fighting with each other over territory or mates.