When you think of Siberia, you probably think bears, cold, and more cold. The last thing you’d imagine is tropical birds.
However, paleontologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, have discovered a parrot fossil on an island in Baikal Lake, Irkutsk Region in Eastern Siberia, which dates to between 16-18 million years ago. Although they only discovered the fossilized leg of the bird, they believe it was probably the size of a budgerigar.
As well as being the first parrot fossil to be unearthed in that corner of the world, it’s the northern-most fossil evidence of this kind of bird we've ever come across.
"No-one before has ever found evidence of their presence in Siberia," study author Dr Nikita Zelenkov told the BBC.
"We were excavating all kinds of animals there, and mostly they were rodents, rhinos, cats, hippos and others. But this locality is also interesting because it preserves a rich community of fossil birds. But no exotic birds have been found there before," he added.
So what the hell was this parrot doing there then? The study of this curious case is published in the journal Biology Letters.
The Siberian parrot, top left, compared to other parrot fossils from the Early Miocene. Nikita V Zelenkov/ Russian Academy of Sciences/Biology Letters
Nowadays, parrots are only naturally found in tropical, sub-tropical, and a few temperate environments (see map below). During the Early Miocene epoch, when this parrot is believed to have been alive, Siberia was notably warmer than its notoriously bitter climate today. The authors noted, however, "that the presence of parrots alone cannot serve as an indication of especially warm climate."
This strange find could provide some hints at how parrots spread throughout the world, as they have a very limited fossil record. The study says that some evolutionary models suggest that parrots got to the Americas from Africa through long-haul flights across the Indian Ocean. With this discovery, it’s now plausible they actually may have traveled a flight path through Eurasia via the Bering Straight. It also supports the idea that parrots could have once been widespread throughout prehistoric Eurasia.
The modern distribution of parrots shown in black, with this discovery shown by the black star. Nikita V Zelenkov/ Russian Academy of Sciences/Biology Letters