Gastornis — Giant 6-Foot Tall Flightless Bird That Used To Live In The Arctic Circle

February 12, 2016 in Animals & Insects, Fossils

While it’s long been known that at various points in the past the Arctic (and the Arctic Ocean) has been considerably warmer, and home to animals such as crocodiles, camels, tropical birds, etc, there is still quite a lot that remains unknown about the past history of the region. The recent discovery of fossil remains of a giant 6-foot tall flightless bird known as Gastornis — a relative of similar birds mostly known from fossil remains found much further south — is a case in point.

Picture a giant, likely very loud, bird with a head the size of a horse’s and a beak big and powerful enough to crack your skull open… Walking around during the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic midsummer. Or perhaps during the permanent midnight of the Arctic winter (which was still quite a warm season, at the time).

Tall flightless bird

Quite an image right? The past was quite strange — probably far more so people can today readily imagine (or maybe remember is a better word?).

The fossil remains found on Ellesmere Island date back to around 53 million years ago, and aren’t very extensive (a toe bone) but are “nearly a dead ringer to fossil toe bones from the huge bird discovered in Wyoming and which date to roughly the same time.”

The Gastornis (formerly Diatryma) fossil from Ellesmere Island has been discussed by paleontologists since it was collected in the 1970s and appears on a few lists of the prehistoric fauna there, said Professor Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. But this is the first time the bone has been closely examined and described, he said. Gastornis fossils also have been found in Europe and Asia.

“We knew there were a few bird fossils from up there, but we also knew they were extremely rare,” stated CU-Boulder Associate Professor Jaelyn Eberle.

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Here’s more via a recent press release:

In addition to the Gastornis bone from Ellesmere, another scientist reported seeing a fossil footprint there, probably from a large flightless bird, although its specific location remains unknown, Eberle said.

About 53 three million years ago during the early Eocene Epoch, the environment of Ellesmere Island was probably similar to cypress swamps in the southeast US today, Eberle said. Fossil evidence indicates the island, which is adjacent to Greenland, hosted turtles, alligators, primates, tapirs and even large hippo-like and rhino-like mammals. Today Ellesmere Island is one of the coldest, driest environments on Earth, where temperatures can drop to minus 40° degrees Fahrenheit in winter.

Originally thought to be a fearsome carnivore, recent research indicates Gastornis probably was a vegan, using its huge beak to tear at foliage, nuts, seeds and hard fruit. A second Ellesmere Island bird from the early Eocene also is described by Stidham and Eberle in the new paper. Named Presbyornis, it was similar to birds in today’s duck, goose and swan family but with long, flamingo-like legs. The evidence was a single humerus, or upper wing bone, collected by the same paleontology team that found the Gastornis bone.

Stidham compared casts of Presbyornis bones excavated in ancient Wyoming to the single bone from Ellesmere Island, including all of the marks for muscle attachments. “I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the north,” he said. While the diversity of plants and animals on Ellesmere was surprisingly high in the early Eocene, one of the biggest challenges to life on the island may have been the Arctic winters, said Eberle.

“Since Ellesmere Island is high above the Arctic Circle, the lights still went out there for several months of the year, just as they do today.”

Which makes one wonder whether Presbyornis was migratory, or sedentary.

“Given the fossils we have, both hypotheses are possible,” he continued. “There are some sea ducks today that spend the winter in the cold, freezing Arctic, and we see many more species of waterfowl that are only in the Arctic during the relatively warmer spring and summer months.”

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The abstract for a research paper describing the fossil remains can be found here.

Image Credit: Marlin Peterson

160-Million-Year-Old Fossil Shows That Choristodere Reptiles Provided Post-Natal Care For Young

January 26, 2015 in Animals & Insects, Fossils

A recent 160-million-year-old fossil found by a farmer in China represents what is — now — the oldest-record of post-natal parental care in the world, according to new research from

The fossil — which shows an adult Philydrosauras (a type of choristodere) accompanied by six juveniles — dates to the Middle Jurassic, and notably extends back-in-time the date of the earliest known post-natal parental care amongst animals.

Philydrosauras choristodere reptile
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Marine Reptiles, Origins In Europe? Fossil Placodont Discovered In Netherlands

March 28, 2013 in Animals & Insects, Fossils

The origin of one of the first groups of marine reptiles, the Placodonts, is now becoming clear, thanks to the new discovery of a fossil skull in the Netherlands. The 246-million-year-old skull, discovered in the region that was once the Tethys Ocean, shows that these highly specialized marine reptiles, one of the earliest saurians, very likely originated in Europe.

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The placodonts lived for about 40 million years or so in the flat coastal regions of the Tethys Ocean, from around 250 million years ago to 210 million years ago. Possessing their “trademark” crushing teeth, they fed primarily on shellfish and crustaceans, but were likely opportunistic predators as well. The distinctive features of these teeth really make them stand out in the fossil record; “the upper jaw had two rows of flattened teeth – one on the palate and one on the jawbone – while the lower jaw only had one set of teeth ideal for crushing shellfish and crustaceans.”

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Extinction, Mass Extinctions, Extinct Species, And The Ongoing 6th Great Mass Extinction

March 7, 2013 in Animals & Insects, Fossils, Humans, Plants

Extinction is the process by which a species, genus, or family, becomes extinct — no longer existing and living in the world. It is the abolition and annihilation of something that previously existed in the world. In the case of biology, it refers specifically to the end of an evolutionary line, or a branch on the tree of life.

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The actual moment of extinction is considered to be when the last individual representative of a species or group is no longer living. But functional extinction can occur considerably earlier than that — as the result of loss of genetic diversity, range, and/or the ability for a population to breed and recover.

Most types of life, especially animals, are closely tied to their ecological niches and environments. With a loss of their living environment, and its accompanying species, extinction is almost inevitable for many types of life. Species diversification and emergence typically doesn’t occur in these circumstances, it usually happens within healthy ecosystems. The long-period of time that follows large extinction events when no new species emerge is referred to as a dead zone .

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Elasmotherium, The Origin Of Unicorn Legends, Survived Until At Least 50,000 Years Ago, Possibly Until Much More Recently

November 27, 2012 in Animals & Insects, Fossils

In Ice Age Europe and Asia, a large, somewhat horse-like genus of rhinoceros, possessing a large unicorn-like horn lived until at least as recently as 50,000 BP. And it’s possible that they survived until much more recently than that. The likely origin of the ‘unicorn’ myths common throughout the Northern Hemisphere, these animals would have been in contact with humans for hundreds of thousands of years. And though now extinct, the memory of their existence has persisted in the stories of humans.

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Several species of the animals were known to have existed. All belonging to the extinct genus, Elasmotherium, meaning ‘Thin Plate Beast’. They were quite common in Eurasia during the last couple of million years, documented from around 2.6 million years ago to at least as late as 50,000 years ago, possibly much later. Of the three known species, the most famous is E. sibiricum. Roughly the size of a mammoth and possessing a singular enormous horn on its forehead, it’s a very distinct looking animal, and calls to mind the image of many mythical creatures. The horn is presumed to have been utilized for competition with other males, attracting mates, defense from predators, digging up roots, opening water holes, and clearing snow from grass. And like all known species of rhinoceroses, elasmotheres were herbivores. Distinct from any other known rhinoceroses though, the high-crowned molars that they possessed never stopped growing. And very interestingly, its legs were quite a bit different, and longer, than those of modern rhinos. They were very well adapted for galloping, giving it a ‘horse-like gait’, further supporting the idea of its identity as that of the mythological ‘unicorn’.

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