STL Science Center

STL Science Center

04 July 2012

Some Notes on Presbyornis' Anatomy

I think I have touched on most everything in terms of the anatomy here and there for Presbyornis at one point or another this week. However, there are always some glossed over pieces of information which are worthy of looking back over and since we have discussed the majority of the anatomy, in short spaces here, you know there is more to say. The first thing we should cover though is not so much about the bird as it is a man named Alexander Wetmore. Typically in the early 20th century and late 19th century we know all the names of all the paleontologists who made discoveries, but, to this point in the blog, this is the first contribution to the field by Alexander Wetmore. What's more, Wetmore was not some here then gone scientist but a prominent old man, he lived to be 92 and died in 1978, who was the sixth secretary of the Smithsonian, worked with the Department of Agriculture, and has had quite a few birds named after him; which he deserves given his lifetime of avian research.

One thing I did not discuss in too great a detail was the skull of Presbyornis. Sure it was made for dabbling, like its modern duck cousins, but it was also extremely duck-like for such an ancient and basic duck ancestor. However, if it is not broken do not fix it applies in situations like this very well. The shape of the bill was, and is still in geese and ducks, perfect for scooping up items out of the water and nipping vegetation, though it has obviously seen adaptations and repurposing depending on individual species' needs over the millenia since this animal strutted about. The skull is visibly lightweight, even my amateur self can tell looking at it that it would not be a heavy skull, and I am sure in this animal it would have had adapted blood vessels and nerves in it to counter the height from which it would be bending to dabble about in the vegetation and shallow waters.

The legs of Presbyornis, remember, were not typically of duck and goose length, but more like their cousins the cranes and herons. This led to that height change and a need for blood flow regulation; think about when you bend over for a long time and then stand back up straight. Imagine a very tall duck with a head rush from bending over on its stilt like legs. It would probably be pretty funny actually. Now if we only had the soft tissue to study the mechanics of how it would work to not get dizzy and fall over. I personally do not know the best modern analog to this, however, I bet a giraffe's ability to bend over and drink and a flamingo's ability to feed by bending over are fairly good modern examples of the types of mechanics we would expect to see in this animal. Conversely, maybe it didn't need to feed with its head below its belt at all. Perhaps it used those long legs, rather unlike a crane, to wade into belly deep water (negating the space and milliseconds of advantage in distancing below surface predators speculated on earlier) and fed at a much more comfortable angle. All of this is speculation however as I have not read or found anywhere solid proof positive feeding habits of Presbyornis and have come to what are basically, my own conclusions and conjectures.

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