Home Science Scientists discover one of world's oldest bird species

Scientists discover one of world’s oldest bird species

The age of the fossilized bones suggests pelagornithids evolved in the Southern Hemisphere.

Scientists have recently discovered the fossils of the ancestor of some of the largest flying birds in Waipara, North Canterbury. They have identified the fossil of the Protodontopteryx ruthae- one of the oldest named bird species in the world. It lived in New Zealand not long after the dinosaurs died out.

Protodontopteryx ruthae was only the size of an average gull. Its descendants were some of the biggest flying birds ever, with wingspans of more than 5 meters. Like other members of its family, the seabird had bony, tooth-like projections on the edge of its beak.

The fossil was discovered last year by Amateur paleontologist Leigh Love at the Waipara Greensand fossil site. The bird was named Protodontopteryx ruthae after Love’s wife, Ruth.

'Protodontopteryx' fossil showing the bony, tooth-like projections on the bird’s beak. Credit: Canterbury Museum.
‘Protodontopteryx’ fossil showing the bony, tooth-like projections on the bird’s beak. Credit: Canterbury Museum.

Canterbury Museum Curators Dr. Paul Scofield said, “the age of the fossilized bones suggests pelagornithids evolved in the Southern Hemisphere. While this bird was relatively small, the impact of its discovery is hugely significant in our understanding of this family. Until we found this skeleton, all the really old pelagornithids had been found in the Northern Hemisphere, so everyone thought they’d evolved up there.”

“New Zealand was a very different place when Protodontoperyx were in the skies. It had a tropical climate—the sea temperature was about 25 degrees, so we had corals and giant turtles.”

Dr Paul Scofield and amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love examine a section of riverbank on the Waipara River, near where the Protodontopteryx fossil was found. Credit: Canterbury Museum. Image Available CC BY NC and for News and Current Affairs Use
Dr Paul Scofield and amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love examine a section of riverbank on the Waipara River, near where the Protodontopteryx fossil was found. Credit: Canterbury Museum.

Dr. Gerald Mayr of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany said, “the discovery of Protodontopteryx was truly amazing and unexpected. Not only is the fossil one of the most complete specimens of a pseudotoothed bird, but it also shows several amazing skeletal features that contribute to a better understanding of the evolution of these enigmatic birds.”

“Protodontopteryxs’ skeleton suggests it was less suited for long-distance soaring than later pelagornithids and probably covered much shorter ranges. Its short, broad pseudoteeth were likely designed for catching fish. Later species had needle-like pseudoteeth which were likely used to catch soft-bodied prey like squid.”

Dr. Vanesa De Pietri of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, described Protodontopteryx said, “because Protodontopteryx was less adapted to sustained soaring than other known pelagornithids, we can now say that pseudoteeth evolved before these birds became highly specialized gliders.”

This research was funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund and is published today in the journal Papers in Palaeontology.

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