Fossils belonging to one of the world’s oldest species of bird – and ancestor to the largest flying birds ever – have been discovered in a well-known New Zealand fossil site, changing what we know about the evolution of giant seafaring flyers.
Named after Ruth, the wife of the amateur paleontologist who first discovered the skeleton last year, Protodontopteryx ruthae is a 62-million-year-old fossil found in Waipara, a site of marine deposits that have provided a number of fossils in recent years, including four other species of giant penguins and the 1.6-meter-tall (5.2-foot-tall) Crossvallia waiparensis.
The descendants of Protodontopteryx, a bird species in the Pelagornithids family, would one day become some of the biggest flying birds to ever soar the skies. Wingspans measuring over 5 meters (16 feet) long allowed them to soar across long oceanic distances, while their needle-like, teeth-lined beaks were primed for capturing soft-bodied prey like squid. But the newly discovered Protodontopteryx was smaller in size, could only cover short distances, and had broad teeth evolved for preying on fish.
Though it may be small in stature, Protodontopteryx represents a mighty discovery.
"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,” said study author Paul Scofield in a statement, adding that Protodontopteryx would have lived in New Zealand shortly after the dinosaurs died out.
"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," he added.
Called an “amazing and unexpected” discovery, Protodontoperyx represents one of the most complete specimens of “pseudotoothed” birds to have ever been discovered. Its unexpected skeletal features help paleontologists better understand how these “enigmatic” birds came to be. For starters, up until now, it was long believed that “pseudotoothed” birds had evolved in the Northern Hemisphere, but the discovery of their presence in New Zealand suggests otherwise. Because Protodontopteryx did not soar like other species within this family, the researchers note that pseudoteeth “evolved before these birds became highly specialized gliders.”
The last pelagornithid species died just before humans evolved some 2.5 million years ago. The study is published in Papers in Palaeontology.