STL Science Center

STL Science Center

30 June 2012

Flamingos or Ducks?

©2011 Scott Hartman
Presbyornis, whose name you cannot find the meaning to anywhere online, is a bird with an interesting image. The image of the skeleton, and there were many to chose from but I liked this one more than the rest for its completeness and locomotive depictions, in contrast to the human skeleton is completely the property of Scott Hartman. This image is from the linked blog article from yesterday, to be specific, and shows, in good detail the attributes which allowed for Presbyornis to both originally be mistaken for a flamingo's ancestor and for the later reassessment as the ancestor of the modern duck. The body is very easily identifiable as that of a bird that wades more than bobs along on the water floating due to the large long shin and ankles (blue and green bones). While this is certainly not very duck-like, it does explain the anatomical misinterpretation very well. The bill, however, is a clearly duck-like trait (flamingo's bills curve downward and are adapted for sifting and filtering more than dabbling). The bill of Presbyornis is very well suited toward this dabbling method of feeding as they can crop vegetation under the water or scoop up small items at the surface without scooping in large amounts of water.

© Jan Sovak from
Flying Dinosaurs by Phillip Currie
Living at the water's edge, however, would have its dangers then as it does now to be sure. Like ducks, and the cranes and flamingos it is not related to, Presbyornis was a species of bird with the ability to fly. Crocodiles, like that in the image from Currie and Sovak's book, were of course not the only danger of the water, but the ability to vertically escape is an advantage over pretty much all land and water based predators as most can only jump so far. Therefore, unlike our earlier discovery, Hesperornis, Presbyornis had a distinct evolutionary advantage over some earlier waterfowl in that they had that ability to take to the wing. Hesperornis more than likely tried to outrun opponents, an easy task in water, but the long legs of Presbyornis, while well suited to taking long strides, were not necessarily built for running and certainly not for strong swimming habits. Additionally, having long legs, in the event of a much needed and quick escape, would add not only muscle and leverage to the spring into the air but their height makes the point of attack from below, such as would be the case for this crocodilian, that much longer to solidly reach in order to foil the escape attempt of the bird. Basically, longer legs means Presbyornis was farther, literally, from the dangers ambushing it from below. Perhaps not much, but enough that, if the predator missed clamping down on the leg, the bird would have enough warning to launch itself into the air before its body could be chomped down on. That's a lot of ifs ands and buts, however, nature is complex. Regardless, the image of the attack does effectively show the ability of Presbyornis to evade a predator using its wings and legs.

©Piotr Gryz
What about flight, though? Actual physical flight for the two species in Presbyornis wouldn't look much like a duck's flight. It couldn't, not with long legs like that. A duck in flight tucks up its little legs under its body extending them into the water upon landing, using them as water breaks; geese do the same thing. Animals that fly with their legs out include, here we go again, flamingos, cranes, and herons. So why would an animal that stands like a crane, flies like a flamingo, has been depicted standing like a heron, and has the body shape of a wading bird, overall, be considered the ancestor of a duck? Is it truly just off of that bill? The answer is, of course, no, it is not simply the bill. Ducks, and other anseriformes like geese and swans, and Presbyornis share many characteristics with one another. It is these many characteristics which have in the past also led to speculation that Presbyornis is a transitional genus between wading shorebirds and anseriformes. As of now, however, it is simply considered a very early ancestor of ducks, geese, and swans.

29 June 2012

Wading Birds? Waterfowl?

Wading birds and other waterfowl sometimes, not always of course, fall under the general order of anseriformes; notable exceptions being the crane and heron families. Also, in general, long time readers know that I am going to try to hit every dinosaur, or bird, it's still June, with its own week of information until I cannot possibly find a new animal, at which time, I may be about 96. This week, in respect of both waterfowl and my undying urge to dig up whatever I can on even the least popular paleocreatures this earth has hidden away in its rocks, I bring you one of the oldest anseriformes, Presbyornis.
From Wikipedia, the pose is a near mirror image of Scott Hartman's skeletal drawing of Presbyornis.
Presbyornis was thought to be an ancestral flamingo when first found, but over time and studying of the fossils it has come to be considered a rather tall, for what it is related to, duck. Not much larger than your average toddler and certainly small enough to keep as a pet, though modern ducks chasing you through the park may make you think twice, Presbyornis was a waterfowl all the way. Its bill was certainly made for the dabbling that can be seen in ducks, anseriformes, of today. The genus itself consists of two accepted species, P. pervetus (Earliest specimen: Early Eocene) and P. isoni (Earliest specimen: Late Paleocene). Presbyornis is believed to have lived in colonies around the water's edge.

28 June 2012

Popularity Is Not A Problem

Outside the biology community animals like Ichthyornis are largely forgotten over time. When Marsh and Darwin were talking about evolution and the evidence present in Ichthyornis most people in the collegiate or in the know circles of the world most undoubtedly knew or had heard references to Ichthyornis. After the sensationalism of the idea of a bird with teeth had died away a little that knowledge by the educated masses and those in the know slowly faded away and Ichthyornis became a novelty for museum goers and known mainly by those that researched, prepared, and cataloged its bones for display or permanent storage. Some people remember it from museum trips or blurbs in books and some remember it from being amateur paleontologists or just being interested in paleontology as well. That is where we get most of our "tribute" videos and Spore creations. Ichthyornis, however, has become so unknown, relatively speaking, that even these things do not exist for it. It's simply amazing really. It's fairly sad that such an important animal has faded into such obscurity as well. Perhaps, however, it will become an important image in the eye of the public again someday.

27 June 2012

Widely Known Birds

Ichthyornis, as we have mentioned, is one of those more widely known fossilized birds. Its remains have been found north to south along the entire coast of what was once the inland sea that spread across North America during the Cretaceous when it floated and darted about the sky with other contemporary birds and the last of the pterosaurs. Adults and immature specimens of the bird have been found, which allows a lifeline study of members of the species and most undoubtedly allowed for the exhaustive amount of research we saw yesterday, of course, being one of the most commonly found fossils in a given formation of earth also helps in allowing for more and more study to be done on an animal. The original panel of the composite of pieces labeled I. victor, a now unused synonym, shown below, is almost comical in its near completeness and arrangement. It almost looks like the bird was in the midst of stretching its wings when it was frozen in time, and plaster.
The panel is plastered composite pieces of skeleton of Ichthyornis and some other nondescript bones of birds meant to give it the near complete look it has. The funniest thing about the mounted specimen when placed in the Peabody Museum at Yale was that it, for one, was supposed to represent a now non-recognized species, and for two, was not made of a single bone from the specimen which it was supposed to represent. Jacques Gauthier had the panels dismantled to determine what was made of what and Julia Clarke's paper shared yesterday was the result of studying the remains of the two panel's specimens, amongst other things of course. The list of synonyms after Clarke's study, and Michael Mortimer's assertion that the species should be I. ancesps rather than I. dispar after a more senior synonym, has become fairly large. I. dispar, however, still holds as the name of the species instead of I. ancesps. There is, sometimes though it has grown exceedingly rare since the 1950's, the belief that the jaws still belong to a young Clidastes rather than to a bird; Clidastes is the smallest known mososaur.

26 June 2012

Writing Quality Papers Since 1874

The sheer amount of papers that exist which mention or briefly dabble in the anatomy of Ichthyornis are fairly amazing. In the interest of creating a concise reading list I have narrowed down the field however so as to make your day easier in terms of reading materials. I could have narrowed it down to just one paper produced by Julia Clarke during her time in North Carolina written in 2004 for the American Museum of Natural History's September bulletin. It is much more than a simple paper on one specific aspect of an extinct bird. In fact, it is an exhaustive, in a good way, study of Ichthyornis that includes tables, illustrations and in depth analyses of the anatomy, previous descriptions, and taxonomic placement just to name a very few topics discussed. It really is almost better suited to be its own book and could easily stand alone as the only reference I needed to share today. It will take you more than one sitting to read it, and not just because it is a scientific paper (which we all know can be quite boring and tedious reading material no matter who writes it). There are plenty of other papers also, some of which we may have included in Hesperornis' list as both birds are studied in parallel at times. Some of the papers to read more about Ichthyornis include but are not limited to the following:
Evolutionary Significance of the Mesozoic Toothed Birds; Philip Gingerich
A New Partial Mandible of Ichthyornis; Philip Gingerich
Comparative Osteological Notes on the Extinct Bird Ichthyornis; R.W. Shufeldt
On the Discovery of a Fossil Bird-Track in the Dakota Sandstone; F. H. Snow

25 June 2012

Ichthyornis the Supporting Actor

Ichthyornis is featured in several clips on the internet of different documentaries, but it is only explicitly named in Dinosaur Planet episode called Pod's Travels. Its entire mention is in the first ten seconds of the clip above and does not really go into any great detail about Ichthyornis. Similarly, the other clips which mention it or discuss issues pertinent to the survival of birds or evolution of birds, do not discuss the bird specifically. This is actually quite sad given that it has been studied and unearthed in so many places and by so many people. The other kind of video that could be included here would be those pesky tribute videos, but I think that today we would be better without. Consider the way the bird is illustrated by the artists working for Discovery and the producers of this show. It is clearly modeled after modern gulls. The colors, its behaviors in indicating that land is near, and the way it flies are all clearly influenced by the modern gull. Is this correct? That is your decision to make!

24 June 2012

Children's Ichthyornis

If a child you know is anything like my wife, they will not even want to color an Ichthyornis because they are too scared of birds. However, if the child you spend Sundays with coloring and learning about prehistoric creatures loves birds, like I do, then we have limited, but fun, links to share for learning and coloring. Despite having a wealth of information on Ichthyornis due to all the studies conducted on them, we do not have a lot of child related links. Enchanted Learning has a fact page and, this time, a fairly accurate image that can be colored. In the past their images have been horrendous, but that is typically when we are searching dinosaurs and, in all fairness, I think they may have children contribute their dinosaur images based on the drawing. The only large complaint on this image is that the toothed beak is toothless. We can forget that for now.'s Ichthyornis has an inaccurate beak also, so we cannot really squabble today. Regardless, It's some fun coloring and a bit of learning and some is better than none by far.

23 June 2012

Ichthyornis Over the Ocean

 Ichthyornis has the skeleton of your average bird, almost. There are a number of differences of course, the most obvious being the beak of the bird. Small conical teeth lined the upper and lower beak in life and were well suited not only to grasping fish, though not as well suited to this task as other piscivorous teeth, but also to prying mollusks from their shells, such as clams, and most likely they were even strong enough to break open some smaller shells, such as those found on snails. If it were alive now I have no doubt that Ichthyornis would also prowl ocean side parking lots for onion rings and french fries, but it made due with clams and fish and other small ocean prey items and was quite happy for them I am sure. Those teeth have also served as a source of controversy since they were discovered. Prior to Ichthyornis no bird or near bird had been discovered with teeth, Archeopteryx skulls with teeth were not found until the 1880's, and this skull which could be used to support the theory of evolution that was becoming ever more popular was feared by some. Marsh, who possessed the finest examples of these skulls, was urged to keep the teeth secret and some theorists conjectured well into the 1960's that Marsh had fabricated the fossilized skulls and teeth of Ichthyornis.

©√ėyvind M. Padros
The truth is that Marsh did not even recognize that he had a bird at first. The reptilian jaws and concave vertebrae suggested a fish or marine reptile and Marsh fully believed, until 1873 that that is what he had brought home to Yale from central Kansas, a reptilian jawed fish or a marine reptile with a fish's backbone. During that year, 1873, Marsh and his preparers chipped tediously away at the rock until they realized that the jaws and vertebrae were attached to a very birdlike skull and that the rest of the body was an almost completely modern bird's body. This gap spanning species was an astounding find which linked two worlds in a new and exciting way (in all fairness he knew there was a bird body but he thought the jaws came from a fish and were not initially connected to the bird body). The discovery that the skull, teeth, and body were all from one single animal and not a bird and a fish prompted Marsh to create a new order of animals that he called Odontornithes, or toothed birds. This order does not still exist but held not only Ichthyornis but also Hesperornis. Today they are separated, but Marsh's clade, the Carinatae, still exists and Ichthyornis is a member of this clade (it is also an Ichthyornithiforme whereas Hesperornis now sits in the order Hesperornithiforme; classification is a science all to its self).

The most important thing to remember if you want to think of the living form of Ichthyornis, though, is that it was very much like a modern seagull in terms of its niche in the environment and food chain. Given this niche it is likely that the coloring of Ichthyornis was like that of a modern seagull as well since the general color scheme of beaches and the ocean has most likely not generally changed over the eons of time separating the two species. Gulls, however, are not actually related to Ichthyornis and therefore we could also come to the conclusion that these two genera may have had nothing in common in coloration. It's a big world and there are lots of possibilities that we will not fully unearth without a ton more evidence, though, it should be known that Ichthyornis is one of those Cretaceous birds which has had quite a wonderful number of samples come about and rear their heads out of the fossil beds of the inland seaways.

22 June 2012

More Toothed Birds Please

©Nobu Tamura
We are officially on the wing again this week with Ichthyornis. Ichthyornis dispar is the solitary species in the genus and ranged along the entire inland sea of North America from Alberta, Canada to Mexico. Ichthyornis was the first toothed bird to be discovered and at a time in which Darwin's version of a theory of evolution (we are scientists, we know there was more than one theory out there) was gaining momentum even outside the sciences during the calendar year of 1870. The size of a pigeon with a 17 inch wingspan, the Ichthyornis possessed a rather unique vertebral column which resulted in its name being "fish-bird." It is believed to have been the Cretaceous version of a seagull or petrel, so you can imagine a pigeon sized toothed seagull in the parking lot at the beach and have a fairly accurate picture of Ichthyornis.

21 June 2012

Fame For Birds

The only really large mention of Gastornis ever is in Walking with Beasts. There's no Dinosaur Train, since it lived after the Mesozoic, there's no Dinosaur King. There, is however, Spore. There always seems to be Spore, which is nice, we get to see what someone can do with a little creativity and a somewhat limited tool base.
There is also one labeled "Sporeatryma" which is kind of funny. Here it is for comparison with the above attempt.
Actual toys are almost non-existent. However, thankfully for us Darren Naish has put up a picture of his Schleich company's Gastornis on Flicker. It's... it's a toy. It's not horribly accurate or inaccurate and that's a lot of praise for a toy of a paleo creature really. Also, apparently this happened, I don't like to watch sequels of cartoon movies if I can avoid it, there was a Gastornis with chicks in the movie Ice Age: The Meltdown. Why Gastornis was alive with Mammoths, I don't rightly know, but Ice Age was never one for accuracy.

20 June 2012

Monsieur Gaston

Gaston Plante, known for his exploits in the realm of physics, actually discovered the fossils of Gastornis, named after him clearly, as a young academic but is forgotten as a paleontologist due to his success in physics. That is quite all right. His name adorns a genus comprised of four species with three proposed genera now viewed as synonyms (Diatryma, Barornis and Omorhamphus). All three synonyms were reappraised as species of Diatryma and then as one solid species of Gastornis. The species belonging to the genus are G. parisiensis (discovered by Plante near Paris, France), G. giganteus (originally Diatryma from Cope 1876), G. sarasini (Schaub 1929), and G. russeli (Martin 1992). Gastornis was a forest dweller and the only Terror Bird known in Europe. Terror Birds were typically from South America until the area between Mexico and Venezuela became a solid land bridge as it is today which allowed the migration of Terror Birds from south to north (and saber tooth cats from north to south). How Diatryma and Gastornis came to be considered one in the same is how Gastornis came to be recognized as one of the Terror Birds of the Americas. Terror Bird is a general label of large birds during the Cenozoic era; it only truly applies to the South American birds with Gastornis being a single European/North American genus and the large Australian birds of the time being referred to as Mihirungs. However, the bigger question is how did it evolve on a completely separate continent in the dense forests of Europe to be considerably like its large plains dwelling cousins in the Americas, even if it is thought to be related to the duck?

An idea, and this is by no means and official out of a scholarly paper idea, is that their ancestors, also being related to ducks, may have had some flight muscles and may have also been long distance floaters. Since the Americas and Europe were once rather close together, perhaps it is possible that the Diatryma branch and the Gastornis branch, prior to both becoming enormous angry avians, could have dispersed amongst the two continents in this manner. However, it is also feasible that, due to the archipelago like nature of Europe during the Paleocene and Eocene, the closeness of Greenland, and the closeness of North America to Greenland, that these birds could have simply island hopped after becoming, already, the large apex predators of their areas. Regardless of how they moved, the anatomy of Gastornis would have required a specific land type for success as a predator.

Gastornis would not have been able to survive in open plains. This is supported by the legs (pun slightly intended) of Gastornis. The legs of this bird were not built for speed over distance but rather sudden short bursts of power, as we would find in successful ambush predators. This would be perfect for the dense forest and the pudgy little prey we may find there like Leptictidium and Hyracotherium (Eohippus). Conversely, the ambush predator theory has been dropped by some who believe that scavenging (there is always someone with large predators that feels this way) was the main mode of nutritive intake for Gastornis. Since Gastornis is sometimes thought to have been a ratite it is considered by some to have been an herbivore or to a point and omnivore by some as well, eating small insects, mammals, and lizards as the opportunity presented itself as well as plant matter. The beak, though large and small-mammal-crunch-able, could have been used to crush large seeds easily, which supports the herbivorous idea. The large beak and the strong legs support scavenging (rending and tearing decomposing flesh) and the ambush predator (short burst of speed with a giant beak to smash or crush prey) ideas. More study of the skeleton is needed to clearly pinpoint a diet, of course a last meal would also do a great deal of help toward this purpose also.

19 June 2012

Rarely Written Papers

There are indeed papers on Gastornis and Diatryma, the North American version, but they are not posted in their entirety online very often if at all it seems. Most of the little snippets of papers seem to agree that they are different species until around 1992 when Allison Andors wrote a reappraisal of Diatryma (as far as I can tell this is the first mention that they belong together). The conclusion that Allison Andors arrived at was that Diatryma was similar enough that it ought to be contained within the Gastornithiformes. If you are in the mood to look in to an originally definitive paper on Diatryma you can look into the 1917 Matthew, Granger, Stein paper from which we have used illustrations here already. This paper describes the skeleton of Diatryma as presented in the year of 1917 in what was at its time it's entirely known skeleton. Of course other examples have been found since then in varying completeness which can serve to augment and enhance the findings of the 1917 paper, but early papers are always interesting to read. Make sure if you go to download it from the site you are patient or that you save it instead of asking the computer to simply open it; it works faster that way. All of the photographs of the bones are present, which is why this paper is very useful to amateurs that cannot get their hands on the bones for themselves. Also, there is this video, which was shared on a Wired post of Laelaps, the Brian Switek blog, entitled Debating Diatryma. I had to share it today since I found it last night searching for papers and articles. Because embedding and time starting don't go hand in hand for some reason, or I just plain don't know how for some reason, skip ahead to 2:56 to see Diatryma.

18 June 2012

Gastornis As A Star

This week the movie day sort of writes itself. There are plenty of tribute videos, a couple of self-made videos, and even a few that I want to save for the popular culture day on Thursday. However, as there is only one really documentary like show that I can find any clips of, I think I'll start the clips rolling with part one of that and leave it to the readers to continue onward from there. In the BBC special Walking with Beasts we got to see animals that ranged about between the dinosaurs and, at the very end, during the time of human being's rise to the top of the food chain. The very first episode of the short series took place in a Eocene forest and started with Leptictidium scurrying about in the leaves. Eventually the story turned to a female Gastornis and her solitary egg. This Gastornis is shown hunting as an ambush hunter, protecting her territory, and... well if you haven't watched it I don't want to spoil the ending for you. Instead, just watch the pieces of the episode starting here:

17 June 2012

Father's Day Gastornis

We have limited resources today for fathers and their children to read together. One thing we do have that I found interesting was a question and answer page about Walking with Beasts as well as a small fact page. There really are not many other child related Gastornis links aside from that. There is no real coloring page to speak of though the results of this search could certainly be repurposed for coloring. Notice that there are some of each body model related in yesterday's now updated image discussion of Gastornis, including that based off of the Americas Terror Birds.

16 June 2012

Flightless Snapshots

Gastornis ate little horses like you eat Doritos.
When it comes to Terror Birds, not just Gastornis, we typically find illustrations that are, except for the archaic illustrations from when the birds were first discovered, of a uniform body plan and posturing but having one or another scheme of feathers. This is because no accurate fossilization of feathering patterns has been captured in the specimens to date. Therefore, we have two types of illustration: the ratite, hair like feathering, and the non-ratite, think of the feathers of every bird that does not look hairy. The lack of any Gastornis preserved feathering patterns makes all of the illustrations the artist's opinion, or the opinion of the scientist consulted, directly or indirectly, by the artist. Coloration is another thing which we lack on account of the fact that the feathers and their proteins have not been preserved.

He may look more like an Emu, but this Gastornis was still a
killer. From the paper of Matthew, Stein, and Granger, 1917.
Ratite feathering was the first conclusion that scientists came to and many still stick with this theory. Part of the reason for the adherence to this idea is that the largest living birds on our planet at this exact moment in time are ratites. Ostriches, Emus, etc.. They are not limited, however, to enormous birds; the kiwi is a ratite. The special thing about ratites is that they do not have the strong sternum required for the attachment of flight muscles. Gastornis does not help us come to a feathering conclusion in looking at its anatomy. The entire genus Gastornis is an anthropomorphic hodgepodge of descendant bird anatomies. Perhaps not descended directly or even indirectly from Gastornis but possessing a number of anatomical similarities with the Gastornis genus are ratites, ducks, cranes, geese, and even herons. This is a good reason that the ratite feathering has remained popular in illustrations of the giant Terror Bird since the discovery of the fossils. Thankfully we see these birds illustrated in a much more modern posturing, but for anyone that has grown up on Tim Haines' BBC creations, the ratite feathering looks rather ancient.

©Jaime Chirinos, courtesy of Science Photo Library
And this is the reason that the ratite version of feathering has become less popular with the "Walking with Dinosaurs" generation. In the series Gastornis was shown as a very colorful forest bird, even the females were bright blues, reds, and greens. Apparently, and we will get to this, giant birds were not afraid of anything at all and even the females were not worried about camouflage according to the documentary. Here, however, we have a nicely camouflaged bird which relates to the idea of Gastornis being an ambush predator. The ambushing quality of Gastornis seems evident in this illustration as well; it is believed that in order to be an active predator Gastornis would have had to have been an ambush predator or a pack (flock?) hunter on account of the limited agility and speed implied by the skeletal remains and their known diet of small horses, or in this case Leptictidium, which were notoriously quick and agile even before they became the big frightening beasts that they are today (some animals taller than me scare me, don't judge). Regardless, the most extraneous error we have in this illustration is neither the feathering or the coloration but the fact that its claws are back in prominence on the wing. The wing here is much more wing like and less KFC chicken wing than we see in many illustrations, which is very nice, considering it is a living bird. In some Terror Birds the evidence of a regrowth of claws is somewhat evident, though, in what I have found so far, there is no such evidence in Gastornis species.

Okay, I had this wonderful bit about what I meant to say yesterday, but let's just let it go at "oops, I made a mistake" rather than explaining where I meant to go with the topic before I cut off abruptly yesterday. I replaced the image above with a similarly modeled, as that was my point, the modelling of the figure, Gastornis and have crossed out text that does not figure in to the discussion now. Thank you for the correction though, I do appreciate it! I have also shifted some text around.

15 June 2012

So Many Giant Evil Birds to Choose From

I had to do at least one giant evil bird in this series of birds. It would be uninteresting if I only did ancient fossil birds that were pretty to look at or fun to watch them swim. Therefore, I picked a bird from that group known as the "Terror Birds" of the Paleocene-Eocene epochs. This week's specific Terror Bird is a giant from Central Europe known as Diatryma or more commonly called Gastornis. Gastornis was named in 1855 and a later fossil discovered in North America in 1870 and described by E.D. Cope was named Diatryma. The fact that the animal spanned two continents is fairly impressive in itself. The fact that this bird was 5.7 to 6.6 feet tall is frightening. Many specimens exist, as do many species, and even trace fossils, foot prints and the like, exist which are attributed to Gastornis.
From the Smithsonian

14 June 2012

Popular Waterfowl

Primeval anyone?

Hesperornis, what a lovely week it has had. Is it a popular fossil bird? Of course it is! Scientists and children alike love waterfowl and giant waterfowl? Imagine bringing fish and other meat to the pond instead of bread to feed the Hesperornis! It could certainly have happened as it is thought that toward the end of their existence as a genus Hesperornis was slowly migrating inland over successive generations to become freshwater divers rather than maritime divers. Unfortunately all of the Hesperornis are gone; I think that that is unfortunate anyhow. What we have left are things we have created to mimic the fossils or living animals because, well, just because we like them. We have figurines and action figures, see left, and we also have origami, with a how to fold it guide linked for you go getters out there (okay, so they're not explicit directions, but I've seen some people use crease guides to figure origami out, I cannot though). Also, there is always Spore. Very few creatures are not created in Spore and Hesperornis has a fairly good representation to be honest. Check that out:
The only bad things about it are the webbed feet and the fact that the feathers look like fur, but it's a game with a somewhat limited creation tool, so it is well done for what it is.

13 June 2012

Hesperornis Biology

Convergent evolution with Mososaurs presented Hesperornis with interesting teeth for a bird. The teeth were designed to snag and hold fish, and they were good at their job, of that there is no doubt. Situated in a groove along the entire bottom jaw, except for the tip of the beak, and the back of the top jaw rather than in sockets, the teeth were sharp and conical and grooves in the top of the mouth allowed those lower teeth to be "locked" into place when the mouth was closed with just a small rotation of the jaw muscles and joints. The beak itself was evident in the remains of attachment sites and other evidence for a hard keratin shell that once laid on the outside of the nasal, predentary, dentary, frontal, premaxilla, and maxilla of Hesperornis. The nasal bone of Hesperornis, if you look at the diagram of the skull left, is squeezed up and into the middle of the foremost part of the skull, which is not something we see in dinosaurs and is worth pointing out if one is used to dinosaur skulls because it is vastly different from those.

Maybe it would give a tiny help in avoiding
Tylosaurus? ©Dan Varner
The wings of Hesperornis and its legs and feet are a topic to be taken together for a very good reason. Clearly the wings were not capable of flight power and they were also certainly not used for diving with maybe some small slight exception in aiding with turns; even my non-aerodynamic hands can have some noticeable affect in terms of lift and drag when held outside a car going 60 down a country road. The wings of Hesperornis, though, had evolved into a mechanism perfectly suited to Hesperornis. Surely it the wings may have had some affect on the directionality of the body, but we can say for certain that they did not provide power and were not an enormous factor. If they had no influence at all surely they would have disappeared entirely in one species of Hesperornis at least. Regardless, we know that the power of the dive was in the legs, so let us move to the rear of the bird if we may and not debate the wings any more.

The legs have been written about wonderfully many times and they deserve the accolades and study. Loons and Grebes alike are powerful leg divers, but they have different adaptations which make this true. Loons have webbed feet held on legs encased in the body wall until the ankle and are very awkward on land. They can "run" a little, run is used very loosely here, as anyone that has taken bread to a pond knows, this is not the norm for all water fowl (I have been chased by geese and ducks too many times to remember). Grebes, in slight contrast, have legs much like the loon, but have a slightly different on land gait, and are a little more capable of running, and completely different feet. We imagine, because ducks, frogs, and geese are our typical land/sky/water transition animals that we come across, that webbed feet are best for swimming and that no other system comes close. However, Grebes have a different diving power generator in their feet. Their feet have large lobes of dermal material which are not webs truly, but are large spoon like adaptations on each digit which are capable of cupping and pushing water. The power of the mechanism is quite easy to see in the video here (which was also the result of a smashing good deed by the video taker). What we have are two different birds with fantastic but different locomotion. Hesperornis, though, is a bridge between the two, so we believe. Hesperornis has the gait and positioning, though the birds are both closely constructed in the leg region, of the Loon while it has the same propulsion mechanism of the Grebe. It's almost as if each exact adaptation was fantastic together but over time each one became slightly better suited to a slightly different environment and has thus presented us with Grebes AND Loons instead of a smaller, hopefully, because I would not want a 5 foot Hesperornis in my backyard, version of the ancient toothed bird.

12 June 2012

Ancient Papers and Ancient Birds

Courtesy University of Kansas
Not all of the papers are ancient, but there are quite a few older papers out there for review and even some newer ones as well. Hesperornis has been studied for a little over 150 years now, and that leads to quite a few scholarly papers. The fact that we can get our hands on some of the older ones is fantastic given that older papers do not always survive or are not scanned or rewritten and hosted online somewhere. I suppose, given that, that we will work from the oldest to the newest. The oldest paper was written in 1896 but has since been transcribed and hosted online. The topic of the paper is the dermal covering of Hesperornis as preserved in a fossil which was found in Western Kansas in 1895. It's a short article and there is a reproduction plate of the fossil found so that the reader can view the fossil. The second paper, of 1915, discusses a paper which describes a Hesperornis fossil found in Montana and then presents the paper.  1952, the year we discuss the teeth of Hesperornis. This paper I read when I lost power last night and went to a friend's house. It's interesting in that it compares Hesperornis and another toothed bird, Icthyornis, to Mososaurs. It's quite odd and, while it argues convergent evolution for Hesperornis and some species of Mosasaur based on the way the teeth fit into the jaw and the way the jaw sits at rest, it argues that Icthyornis was actually related to Mososaurs. It goes on to say that the head of Icthyornis probably isn't the right head, which is strange, but not unheard of in the early days of paleontology. The two newest papers came from the labs of Larry Martin, and others, in which he and colleagues first, in 1980, examined the teeth and tarsus structure of Hesperornis and then in 1988 when they examined cranial kinesis of Hesperornis. The 1988 paper, which was also coauthored by Larry Witmer, is a stub of the paper, so you can't get too in depth with it without a JSTOR account, but it's an interesting topic to glance over.

11 June 2012

Hesperornis in Moving Pictures

Hesperornis is another animal that needs a good documentary, well, there is one, but it's hard to find. I think that brings my list up to all Chinese dinosaurs and now also fossil birds. If only I were a billionaire, I could produce documentaries on fossil birds and Chinese dinosaurs. Alas I am not, so what we do have in the way of "movies" is the Dinosaur Train episode from yesterday and those Youtube tribute videos. Now, Hesperornis does appear in episode 3 of the first season of Primeval and it also shows up in a BBC documentary called Sea Monsters. While these are more for entertainment type shows, we do learn something about the birds and watch them acting out life in hypothetical situations such as swimming about the Thames and interacting with an older man on a Cretaceous beach. The BBC documentary is proving rather hard to find clips of, though there is none translated into Spanish.
National Geographic has also put up a small blurb on three sea creatures of the Mesozoic and one of these is a model of Hesperornis, so there's that to look at if you wish. Both National Geographic and most of the BBC shows have very tight lids on them though, and that is why it is hard to find good clips.

10 June 2012

Hesperornis Links for Children

I like when I can start by saying here is a link for Kid's Dinos that you can read with your little one today. However, I think the real meat of my Sunday posts is always going to be the family activities. The easiest, and least active activity, which is also very fun, is watching Dinosaur Train. This week, like last week, there is an entire episode half dedicated to to our bird for this week. There are not any Youtube links, except a language version that I cannot figure out, maybe Czech, so if you want to watch it in English you have to watch it on Netflix. The Hesperornis is crazy and energetic in this episode, so he's pretty fun to watch. If you want to have a bit more active day, there are some good coloring pages, whether they are actually coloring pages or not! You can color online at or you can color it after you print it out. There are two versions which you could use for that purpose. There is an older illustration in black and white
JF Horrabin
and there is also a newer version, which was not intended to be a coloring page of course, by Josep Zacarias. He reminds me all the time that he didn't mean for them to be coloring pages but that he doesn't mind if I use them that way.
©Josep Zacarias

09 June 2012

Art That Dives

©Andrey Atuchin
Hesperornis, as a diving bird, is often pictured as being underwater. Not much of that art has captured the scene as perfectly as this illustration I fear. The coloration of Hesperornis I will look into, I cannot say anything about the coloring in these illustrations today as I know basically nothing of it to begin with, but that aside the body form and the bird's carriage of itself both in and out of the water is fantastic. The legs of Hesperornis were what gave it power and as such were oriented near the rear of the animal yet still held somewhat under the belly and chest as the animal is believed to have, on land, carried itself in a slight forward bend, not unlike a Loon. This, unlike penguins, makes running difficult with the situation of the legs and hips at the very nearly extreme end of the rear of the animal; as far as center of balance is concerned I should say, not the actual skeletal rear of the animal. However, this being a foot propelled diving bird, Hesperornis' legs were adapted to maximize the strength and mechanical effort of these legs. The feet, as can be noticed here, are not webbed either, meaning some of the power was lost to the dive and swimming. These feet are comparable to the modern model that has been mentioned previously, the Grebe. Webbing would have made a much more efficient thrusting motion, but as it is not thought to be a part of Hesperornis anatomy, it is assumed that the dive of Hesperornis was powerful, but not as powerful as it could have been.

©Heinrich Harder
Older images of Hesperornis assume that webbing between the toes and, as far as I have seen this is an assumption as much as not having webbing is, but remember it is Saturday and I do my research one day at a time, just we all read it here! These illustrated Hesperornis also have the penguin body mentioned before. One thing they have which is a little more in what I have found to be the modern scientific thought, is that the leg is in the body wall down to the ankle. In the previous illustration it is not, but it is held at the same angle that the "in the body wall" theory states the feet would be held at, which, to me, makes it just a different interpretation of the theory. Here they align with the theory, but are held penguin-like, not Loon or Grebe like.

Old enough I can't find the artist
Other old illustrations, though science has flipped and flopped many times since they were engraved, I think that's an engraving, show an almost compromising juxtaposition between the old and the new. This one, for instance, has the newer designed feet with the older designed leg, i.e. not encased in the body wall, yet it shows Hesperornis as a belly-dragger on land. One school of thought is that the feet were placed so strangely on the body that this type of locomotion would have been nearly, if not the only, efficient method of locomotion for Hesperornis species to engage in when out of their marine environment. This makes them sound and look a lot like plesiosaurs, to be honest, which is not what we want to think about when we think about birds, but it is just possible that this locomotion would have been the most efficient type of terrestrial locomotion for this bird.

08 June 2012

Western Birds

We now travel forward in time to the Late Cretaceous in the Campanian age and we also travel much to the west of China. Specifically, our travels take us to Kansas and Canada where limestone and shale, respectively, yield a wonderful waterfowl designed to dive. Atop the genus of nine recognized species, eight from North America and one from Russia, sits the Regal Western Bird as type fossil, Hesperornis regalis. Built like a cross between a penguin and a duck, Hesperornis was a foot propelled diving bird; this is important so please retain that information. If one must have a modern equivalent then we should look to the Grebe, a family of diving birds in which two species are flightless and the other 20, a few of which are extinct, are very reluctant to fly. The reason for picking out the Grebe as the modern equivalent over other foot propelled birds, such as loons and cormorants, is that the legs, as we shall see, are quite similarly built in Hesperornis and in Grebes. Hesperornis as a genus of birds has very little wing space, almost to the point that they are nonexistent, teeth and a beak, and has been found to reach a maximum length of about 5 feet. I have not yet found out if we are talking tail to teeth or extended feet to teeth, but either way a bird that can dive that is about the size of me is scary enough thank you; I'm teeny. Tomorrow, more pictures than just this one here!
©Dan Varner

07 June 2012

Popularity Control

Due to Chinese and international law regarding fossil removal, retrieval, sale, and study, Confuciusornis is not as popular as some animals because it is not as freely available to show to the public. Additionally there is that small problem with it not being a dinosaur; people tend to be less enthused by fossil birds that are, well, bird sized, than they do giant birds or dinosaurs. All that being what it is, the four valid species of Confuciusornis, of the family Confuciusornithidae, of the order Confuciusornithiformes, of the clade Pygostylia of the class Aves (classification is a crazy business and I actually have skipped a step or two here), are very interesting and, as the public gains more knowledge about what this gap genus really is, growing in popularity amongst fossil enthusiasts and lovers of biology and all things paleo. This is certainly a good thing because, as I am sure I have stated before, the past is, in many ways, the key to understanding the life of the present as well as the future. Given that there are no movies, toys, or other instances of Confuciusornis in popular culture other than what we have already discussed, I shall leave off this week's bird with a "tribute" video that is dated a little in its illustrations and, unless you like the music involved, may be best left on mute. I swear it seems like people use the same small grab bag of music for these videos and all the songs sound the same. Oh well!

06 June 2012

Some Interesting Notes on Confuciusornis

Facts about the fossils of Confuciusornis and its discovery that I find interesting or entertaining in a concise and summary oriented presentation:
1. As of 2010 over 536 specimens of Confuciusornis had been cataloged in the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature.
2. The first fossil, found in 1993, was acquired by Zhong, Yoaming, and Lianhai at a flea market from an amateur paleontologist named Zhong He.
3. In early 1994 it was discovered that hundreds of specimens controlled by farmers were being illegally prepared and sold to private fossil collectors and dealers.
4. Confuciusornis is considered one of the most popular and densely represented vertebrate fossils of the Aptian age of the Early Cretaceous. One instance was reported in which 40 specimens were found in a 100 square meter area.
5. C. feducciai is the largest of the species of Confuciusornis. The average wingspan of the bird was about 2.3 feet, about that of a crow. C. feducciai was a bit longer than C. sanctus but had an almost identical wingspan.
6. Confuciusornis is regarded as a species which shows many ancient and modern avian adaptations and thus bridges a significant gap in the evolutionary record. It retains the claws of the forelimb, a rigid, but toothless, beak, a small breastbone, and a closed eye socket as is found in dinosaurs, but also possessed lightweight bones, the start of the wishbone, wings which, though they seem inadequate for flapping flight, were probably used at least for gliding if not a unique motion of flight that differs from modern birds,  and fairly modern feathers.
7. Coloring pigments have been found as preserved melanosomes in some feathers of Confuciusornis, making it one of very few fossil animals that has a known color scheme. That color scheme is proposed to be mostly grey, red, brown, and black, like a zebra finch as a modern equivalent.
©Matthew Martyniuk
Flight mechanics, obviously, are a very important area of study around "primitive" birds and as such, there are also a lot of interesting facts about Confuciusornis that have been gleaned from study of its life, including diet, which we can use to understand better how it flew and how its flight adaptations arose. Additionally, in studying the flight, diet, and other mechanics of the bird, we have come to understand, or at least theorize, a lot about the feathers and colors of which this bird was comprised.
1. While possessing strong flight indicating adaptations, the flight of Confuciusornis has been scrutinized in recent years based on some not so flight friendly dinosaurian adaptations that are still present in Confuciusornis. These include limited vertical wing movement (the lack of an upstroke up and over the back of the bird), and weak feather strength (which leads to a failed power stroke because of a lack of rigidity in the feathers).
2. Weight of the bird, estimated at a range varying between 0.2 and 1.5 kilograms massively affects the ability and type of flight under which Confuciusornis could manage itself in the air. One study, using 1.5 kilograms states that gliding is the most the bird could achieve, while others still believe at a very light weight Confuciusornis may have had some mechanical flight capabilities despite the lack of an adequate upstroke.
3. Osteological studies have determined that Confuciusornis was a quick grower. Maximum size was determined to be achieved in as little as 13 weeks and as many as 20 weeks after hatching. That indicates growth and metabolism equal to that of modern birds.
4. The diet of Confuciusornis is known to have consisted of fish, seeds and berries (remember the statement I made about that big tough beak), insects, and fruits.
5. Rings in its eye sockets, called scleral rings, indicate that, from comparison to modern birds, Confuciusornis was most likely diurnal, or a daytime bird.

05 June 2012

A Well Read Bird

I cannot even begin to make a list of papers showing and discussing Confuciusornis that would be short enough to make a post that was both interesting and concise. That is how much this bird has been studied in the past twenty years. Instead of, therefore, going through every single paper and discussing every abstract, allow me to make things a little simpler for us today my good friends.

First of all, papers on sexual dimorphism of Confuciusornis, because I do love the topic of anatomical ornamentation and the meanings of such ornamentations. In fact, I'll include the papers on ornamentation as well.
1. Sexual size dimorphism
2. Life history and ornamental feathers

Second, papers on the diet and paleobiology of Confuciusornis. These papers describe the bones, anatomy overall, and the diet of Confuciusornis as found when studying the fossils of these birds.
1. Functional morphometric analysis
2. Paleobiology of Confuciusornis
3. Life history of a basal bird
4. Diet evidence in fossils of Confuciusornis
5. Comparison of Confuciusornis and Archaeopteryx

In this miscellaneous category I am placing three papers. One is a legal study of Confuciusornis and Chinese law and their impacts upon the study of Confuciusornis. Another is about the wings and flight mechanics of birds while the last one is about creation of a new genus from a previously assigned Confuciusornis species.
1. Chinese law and Confuciusornis
2. Avian wing formation
3. New species study

04 June 2012

Confuciusornis is Famous, Still Not on Film

Chung the Confuciusornis

Other than Dinosaur Train one does not find Confuciusornis in many videos online at all. In case you missed that episode, it is on Netflix, if you have that as an option. There are, of course, tribute videos. Those always exist. This one isn't so bad really, compared to some that have been available in the past. Then I also have a video from that Czech Dinopark that shows up all the time when I'm looking at videos. I think it is fantastic and wonderful both that this Dinopark has so many animatronic dinosaurs and birds. There should be more places like that. There was one such park recently opened in New Jersey, in the past month actually. Worth checking out.

03 June 2012

Birds that Love Children

Confuciusornis is a child friendly Cretaceous bird if ever there was one. My favorite child oriented dinosaur website, Kid's Dinos, has a page on Confuciusornis that you may wish to share with that special child in your life. If not, watch Dr. Scott (Scott Sampson, if you didn't catch me talking about him a while back) talking about Confuciusornis in either the end of the Dinosaur Train episode or on the Dinosaur Train Field Guide. As far as coloring goes, I recommend looking at these three drawings and using your own discretion about whether or not you want to print and color them. One is by DeviantArt's Jamie Headden, one is on a blog called Drakonikos, and the last is from a paleo related site out of a UK school. Enjoy your Sunday!

02 June 2012

Seeing the First Birds

Body without tail streamers
Confuciusornis has an interesting body. It is certainly that of a bird, but it also has some last vestiges of its ancestors and, like many birds, has some interesting plumage which, thankfully, has been saved by its fossils. If the feathers hadn't been saved who knows what the Chinese farmer and the paleontologists he called would have thought he had found. The thing about the plumage on Confuciusornis is that it can be deceptive. As was mentioned in yesterday's quick blurb, there have been Confuciusornis found with and without large tail feathers.The two streaming feathers have caused a bit of debate that has multiple points. Point one is that birds molt. All birds at some time of the year molt a bit. We shed skin, not as much at a time as a lizard, horses grow winter coats, birds molt. Fact of life. However, not all birds molt at the same time and even in a species the male and female may molt at different times of the year. It is therefore the assumption of point one that any and all Confuciusornis fossils found without the tail streamers are birds that are in the process of molting and growing new tail streamers. That being understood, we can move on to point two of the argument. Point two states that animals, though not all animals, possess a level of differentiation in which the animals within a species, think humans here for a moment, can tell apart individuals and, specifically, can tell male from female whether that is with voice, coloration, or other bodily adaptation. Therefore, it is the argument of those using point two as the basis for their conclusion that sexual dimorphism, the ability to tell the sexes apart based on unique bodily adaptations or ornamentations, even voice, is apparent in the possession or lack of the two streaming tail feathers found on some but not all fossils of Confuciusornis.
Body with tail streamers
Then, there is point three. Point three is, as a third party is in government typically, that there is a bridge between the two theories. This third point, therefore, admits that some of these fossils may indeed be the simple result of molting but that they may also show a level of sexual dimorphism via the streaming feathers of the tail. Personally, I believe point three allows us to view the hundreds of recovered Confuciusornis as a full spectrum of life; both male and female are represented as well as their molting habits. The only thing we are really and truly missing, should that be the case, is easily identifiable clutches of eggs and hatchlings and true juveniles of Confuciusornis. If those are found in abundance and well studied we may very well know this animal from birth to death and almost have a complete knowledge of a fossil animal minus the soft tissues which we do not have available to dissect and study.

©Daniel Bensen
This, therefore, brings me to a fantastic piece of art. In true 19th. century form, this bodily representation of C. dui has been laid out like a naturalist has just finished cataloging and inspecting the bodies of a male and female (or molted and un-molted if you prefer) Confuciusornis. This does a number of things for us. First of all it gives us an amazing look at, at least an interpretation, of the form of the body and a vivid color scheme which may have existed and beneficial to a bird at a time when flowering plants were just beginning to diversify the landscapes colors. Secondly, we have here a level of accuracy with the shape of the body that is very high and can thus picture this crow sized bird even better as a living and flying animal as it darts from tree to tree. The variations in color from male to female are what we typically expect in birds that show feathers as part of their blueprint for sexual dimorphism (reference the peafowl if you need to here) and the bill of C. dui is accurately detailed, which is important. Though there may be some detractors which say, and I do not know that there are for certain but someone always disagrees with what someone else says, it's inevitable, that some of the species of Confuciusornis are merely growth stages of the type species.
Here you can see that the bill of C. dui is sloped upward which may have been good for any number of reasons that we do not fully understand and obviously was good for at least one specific role in the Early Cretaceous forests and plains of China or it would not have developed and been present in a successful species in multiple specimens. Having trouble coping with that idea? Please look at this for a second and think about how life has a history of repeating itself when it finds something successful. I would venture to guess that the sloping upward of the bill in C. dui is in some way related to insect predation, like perhaps the insects on which this species fed liked to tunnel upwards into tree bark and an upturned beak would have allowed it to grasp the silly insects in their upward facing tunnels. Compare this beak, though, with the beak of the type species, C. sanctus. The bill of C. sanctus, the lower set of Confuciusornis, again male and female represented, in the above illustration, have hardy seed crunching beaks made, it appears, for opening large resilient seed casings to get at the meat inside. Some birds have been removed or are potentially being removed from Confuciusornis based on the bills, but in that case, I refer us back again to Darwin's Finches. Something to think about with the remainder of your Saturday!

01 June 2012

Holy Birds

This month I decided that I would dedicate the month to fossil birds. I have picked out a small menagerie of wonderful animals with and without teeth, waterfowl and fliers, and even a landstriding behemoth. June is going to be a good month. To start that month off well I have a very nice Richard Hartley illustration to present:
©Richard Hartley
This, my friends, is Confuciusornis. Confuciusornis is a four species genus (C. sanctus, type, C. dui, C. fedduciai, and C. jianchangensis). A few hundred specimens have been found in the Yixian formation of China making it one of the most abundant fossils of the formation. It has twin tail streamers, typically though there are also plenty of fossils without, but more about that and its implications later, and is the first fossil bird to be recognized as lacking teeth and possessing a beak. Confuciusornis is a crow sized bird so if you look out your window, or if you don't have crows look them up somewhere, you can get a good picture of just how large this bird was when it was flitting around in the Early Cretaceous. Pointing to its youth in the bird family tree, a claw or two sticks out at the end of its teeny hands on the edge of the wing as well, but this is certainly a bird albeit a very early bird. The abundance of information about Confuciusornis will make for a very good discussion as this week rolls on!