The Magic Beaks Of Stone Birds
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Discovering an ancient avian superpower
Carla Du Toit, Anusuya Chinsamyturan And Susie Cunningham

A new study from the University of Cape Town has shown that fossil relatives of ostriches and emus had a remarkable foraging ecology that was more like that of the Hadeda Ibis than their giant flightless living relatives. What is even more fascinating is that they may have inherited this unique ‘sixth sense’ from their non-avian dinosaur relatives.

The fossil birds we studied were the lithornithids, whose name means ‘stone birds’. These ancient birds co-existed with non-avian dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago and survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that killed off all dinosaurs except for birds. The lithornithids are the earliest members of the paleognathous clade of birds, the group of birds that are sometimes also known as ratites. It includes ostriches, emus and the kiwis from New Zealand, as well as the gigantic, extinct Elephantbirds and moas. The lithornithids went extinct about 40 million years ago, but based on fossil material from North America and Europe, we know that they were roughly the size and shape of oystercatchers, were able to fly and lived in and around wetlands like modern wading birds (for example rails and ibises).

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