Despite the fact that finding and studying fossils is their job, paleontologists don’t happen upon ancient remains every day. In fact, it’s quite a rarity when a well-preserved fossil skeleton is found. It’s even rarer when said fossil belongs to a New Zealand bird from the Paleogene Period. Yet this is exactly what was found by Leigh Love, an amateur paleontologist from Waipara, New Zealand.

Bird fossils from the Paleogene – the geologic time period that extends from 66 million years ago to about 23 million years ago – are few and far between in the country of New Zealand. That is why the team of international paleontologists reporting in January in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand were pleasantly surprised by this find and excited to see where it fit in the bird tree of life.

The specimen belongs to a never-before-seen species, which the research group dubbed Australornis lovei – named for its finder. The fossilized remains — 58 million years old — include the wing and shoulder bones. These fossils are particularly useful for comparing morphologies of related birds and even dinosaurs – and ultimately, scientists hope, Australornis will lend a hand — or wing — in helping to unravel the mystery of the advent of flight.

Australornis looked somewhat like today’s seagull, but larger. Its body, head-to-tail, grew to a length of almost 3 feet and weighed around 4.5 pounds. It lived on the coast and soared over the sea, where it collected its meals in the form of small fish.

Australornis shows close resemblance to birds from around its time that lived in Antarctica – which was much closer to the landmass that New Zealand rests on when Australornis was living. Birds such as Polarornis gregorii, native to Antarctica and about as old as Australornis, were likely travelling between New Zealand and the South Pole long ago.

Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand
The remains of Australornis lovei consist of wing and pectoral girdle bones.

Mayr, G., & Scofield, R. P. (2013). First diagnosable non-sphenisciform bird from the early Paleocene of New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, (ahead-of-print), 1-9.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: February 9, 2014

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