Bird Fossils


Birds are generally believed to have evolved from certain feathered theropod dinosaurs, and there is no real dividing line between birds and dinosaurs, except of course that some of the former survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event while the latter did not. For the purposes of this article, a 'bird' is considered to be any member of the clade Aves sensu lato. Some dinosaur groups which may or may not be true birds are listed below under 'Proto-birds'.

This page contains a listing of prehistoric bird taxa only known from completely fossilized specimens. These extinctions took place before the Late Quaternary and thus took place in the absence of significant human interference. While the earliest hominids had been eating birds and especially their eggs, human population and technology was simply insufficient to seriously affect healthy bird populations until the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. Rather, reasons for the extinctions listed here are stochastic abiotic events such as bolide impacts, climate change due to orbital shifts, mass volcanic eruptions etc.

Alternatively, species may have gone extinct due to evolutionary displacement by successor or competitor taxa - it is notable that an extremely large number of seabirds have gone extinct during the mid-Tertiary; this seems at least partly due to competition by the contemporary radiation of marine mammals.

The relationships of these taxa are often hard to determine, as many are known only from very fragmentary remains and due to the complete fossilization precluding analysis of information from DNA, RNA or protein sequencing. The taxa listed in this article should be classified with the Wikipedia conservation status category "Fossil".

Before the late 19th century, when minerals were still considered one of the kingdoms of binomial nomenclature, fossils were often treated according to a parallel taxonomy. Rather than assigning them to animal or plant genera, they were treated as mineral genera and given binomial names typically using Osteornis ("bone-bird") or Ornitholithus ("bird fossil") as "genus". The latter name, however, is still in use for an oogenus of fossil bird eggs. Also, other animals (in particular pterosaurs) were placed in these "genera". In sources pre-dating the Linnean system, the above terms are also seen in the more extensive descriptions used to name taxa back then. Read more ...




In the News ...





Parrot fossil unearthed in Siberia   BBC - October 26, 2016
parrot fossil has been unearthed in Siberia - the furthest north one of these birds has ever been found, a study reports. A single parrot bone was discovered in the Baikal region and dates to between 16 and 18 million years ago. It suggests that the birds, which today mainly inhabit tropical and sub-tropical regions, may once have been widespread in Eurasia. It is also the first time a fossil parrot has been found in Asia.




Ancient eggshell protein breaks through the DNA time barrier   PhysOrg - September 27, 2016
Scientists have identified fossil proteins in a 3.8 million year-old ostrich eggshell, suggesting that proteins could provide valuable new insights into the evolutionary tree, much further back in time than was previously thought. The study suggests that survival of protein fragments in the ancient eggshell could provide genetic information almost 50 times older than any DNA record. The findings shed new light on how animals and humans lived and interacted in the past, how some species became extinct, and why so 2 me evolved and continue to thrive today. Crucially, the research provides archaeologists with the ability to be more targeted in which fossils they submit for deeper analysis.




Ostrich relative lived in North America 50 million years ago   PhysOrg - July 5, 2016

Exceedingly well-preserved bird fossil specimens dating 50 million years represent a new species that is a previously unknown relative of the modern-day ostrich. The bird fossils were found more than a decade ago, completely intact with bones, feathers, and soft tissues in a former lake bed in Wyoming. Nesbitt cannot hide a grin as he calls the fossil a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for paleontologists.




Ancient birds' wings preserved in amber   BBC - June 28, 2016

Two wings from birds that lived alongside the dinosaurs have been found preserved in amber. The "spectacular" finds from Myanmar are from baby birds that got trapped in the sticky sap of a tropical forest 99 million years ago. Exquisite detail has been preserved in the feathers, including traces of colour in spots and stripes. The wings had sharp little claws, allowing the juvenile birds to clamber about in the trees. The tiny fossils, which are between two and three centimetres long, could shed further light on the evolution of birds from their dinosaur ancestors.




Rare Dinosaur - Era Bird Wings Found Trapped in Amber   National Geographic - June 28, 2016

Bone, tissue, and feathers show the almost 100-million-year-old wings are remarkably similar to those on modern birds. Two tiny wings entombed in amber reveal that plumage (the layering, patterning, coloring, and arrangement of feathers) seen in birds today already existed in at least some of their predecessors nearly a hundred million years ago. They most likely he belonged to enantiornithes, a group of avian dinosaurs that became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. Skin, muscle, claws, and feather shafts are visible, along with the remains of rows of feathers similar in arrangement and microstructure to modern birds.




New Zealand contractors unearth giant bird bones   BBC - March 18, 2016
Contractors at a site in southern New Zealand have made an unexpected find while digging a trench - dozens of bones belonging to a long-extinct species of giant bird. Workers spotted the bones during excavations in an area of South Canterbury which was once swamp land. They've been identified as belonging to a female South Island giant moa, an enormous flightless bird which roamed the area for millennia. One of the bones is thought to belong to a smaller male moa.




Giant Flightless Bird Once Roamed the Arctic   Discovery - February 16, 2016

More than 50 million years ago, a giant flightless bird that weighed several hundred pounds lived in the Arctic. Based on a single toe bone first found in the 1970s, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the University of Colorado Boulder determined that the bird, named Gastornis, lived in the Arctic Circle on Ellesmere Island.




Giant flightless bird wandered the Arctic 50 million years ago   Science Daily - February 12, 2016
New research confirms there really was a giant, flightless bird with a head the size of a horse's wandering about in the winter twilight of the high Arctic some 53 million years ago. The confirmation comes from a new study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the University of Colorado Boulder that describes the first and only fossil evidence from the Arctic of a massive bird known as Gastornis. The evidence is a single fossil toe bone of the 6-foot tall, several-hundred-pound bird from Ellesmere Island above the Arctic Circle. The bone is nearly a dead ringer to fossil toe bones from the huge bird discovered in Wyoming and which date to roughly the same time.




Feathery fossils peg early birds to even earlier date   BBC - May 6, 2015

Scientists in China have described a new species of early bird, from two fossils with intact plumage dating to 130 million years ago. Based on the age of the surrounding rocks, this is the earliest known member of the clade that produced today's birds: Ornithuromorpha. It pushes back the branching-out of this evolutionary group by at least five million years. The little bird appears to have been a wader, capable of nimble flight.




'Terror birds' had deep voices, fossil suggests   BBC - April 10, 2015

A 90%-complete "terror bird" skeleton found on an Argentinean beach suggests these big-beaked predators had good low-frequency hearing and deep voices. t is the most complete skeleton ever discovered for one of these menacing beasts, and represents a new species.




Birdlike fossil challenges notion that birds evolved from ground-dwelling dinosaurs   Science Daily - July 10, 2014

The re-examination of a sparrow-sized fossil from China challenges the commonly held belief that birds evolved from ground-dwelling theropod dinosaurs that gained the ability to fly. The birdlike fossil is actually not a dinosaur, as previously thought, but much rather the remains of a tiny tree-climbing animal that could glide.




Fossil of 'largest flying bird' identified   BBC - July 7, 2014

The fossilized remains of the largest flying bird ever found have been identified by scientists. This creature would have looked like a seagull on steroids - its wingspan was between 6.1 and 7.4m (20-24ft). The 25m-year-old fossil was unearthed 30 years ago in South Carolina, but it has taken until now to identify that this is a new species.




Earliest Evidence of Flower Pollination by Birds Unearthed   Live Science - May 28, 2014

Birds have been visiting and pollinating flowers for at least 47 million years, fossil evidence now suggests. The new find pushes back the onset of ornithophily, or bird pollination, by about 17 million years, researchers say. To pollinate, most species of angiosperms (flowering plants) require assistance from animals, particularly insects and birds. Though research suggests that insects have been pollinating flowers since the early Cretaceous period, over 100 million years ago, the onset of ornithophily has long remained elusive. Previously, fossils of modern-type hummingbirds suggested ornithophily began as early as 30 million years ago, but this conclusion was only inferred indirectly from the birds' long beaks and presumed hovering capabilities. However, researchers have now analyzed a well-preserved, 47-million-year-old fossil of the extinct bird Pumiliornis tessellatus, and found that the animal's stomach contents contain numerous angiosperm pollen grains. The discovery is the first direct fossil evidence of flower visitation by birds, and suggests that ornithophily is far older than previously believed.




DNA evidence suggests humans hunted moa to extinction   PhysOrg - March 18, 2014

A new study conducted by an international team of researchers points to humans as the cause of the sudden extinction of all species of moa in New Zealand approximately 600 years ago. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes DNA testing they carried out, along with archeological evidence, which they claim, proves that humans were the cause of the demise of the large flightless birds.




Oldest-Known Fossil Bird Tracks from Australia   Science Daily - October 29, 2013
Two fossilized footprints found at Dinosaur Cove in Victoria, Australia, were likely made by birds during the Early Cretaceous, making them the oldest known bird tracks in Australia. Much of the rocky coastal strata of Dinosaur Cove in southern Victoria were formed in river valleys in a polar climate during the Early Cretaceous. A great rift valley formed as the ancient supercontinent Gondwana broke up and Australia separated from Antarctica.




How Birds Got Their Wings: Fossil Data Show Scaling of Limbs Altered as Birds Originated from Dinosaurs   PhysOrg - September 17, 2013

Birds originated from a group of small, meat-eating theropod dinosaurs called maniraptorans sometime around 150 million years ago. Recent findings from around the world show that many maniraptorans were very bird-like, with feathers, hollow bones, small body sizes and high metabolic rates.




Prehistoric Flamingo Nest with Eggs Discovered   Discovery - October 19, 2012
A fossil bird's nest has been discovered in Spain, cradling at least five eggs that scientists believe belonged to an ancient flamingo some 18 million years ago. The nest was found in a limestone block in the Ebro Basin in northeastern Spain. The researchers think it was abandoned and sunk to the bottom of a shallow, salty lake (which once also housed snakes, turtles and crocodiles) before being covered in mud and fossilizing during the early Miocene.




Reign of the giant insects ended with the evolution of birds, study finds   PhysOrg - June 4, 2012

Giant insects ruled the prehistoric skies during periods when Earth's atmosphere was rich in oxygen. Then came the birds. After the evolution of birds about 150 million years ago, insects got smaller despite rising oxygen levels, according to a new study by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Insects reached their biggest sizes about 300 million years ago during the late Carboniferous and early Permian periods. This was the reign of the predatory griffinflies, giant dragonfly-like insects with wingspans of up to 28 inches (70 centimeters). The leading theory attributes their large size to high oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere (over 30 percent, compared to 21 percent today), which allowed giant insects to get enough oxygen through the tiny breathing tubes that insects use instead of lungs.




Paleobirding: What Birds Looked Like 125 Million Years Ago   Wired - April 10, 2012
Looking at ancient bird fossils is an opportunity to see what birding might have been like millions of years ago. Back then, many birds had enormous teeth, long snouts and long, bony tails. "The birds that lived during the age of the dinosaurs were very different from the birds that live today," said Los Angeles County Natural History Museum curator and dino-bird expert Luis Chiappe. "And it would have been a completely different experience to go out birding in the Mesozoic Era." During the Mesozoic, from 250 to 65 million years ago, the planet also looked and felt very different. Earth was much warmer, and the ice caps didn't exist. The continents were only beginning to split into their modern configurations. Sea levels were higher, and large dinosaurs ruled the land. Primitive birds emerged at this time and became prey for non-avian dinosaurs, which were usually much bigger.




Archaeopteryx was first bird after all   PhysOrg - October 26, 2011
The crown of the famous 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx fossil as the first bird has been restored by a new evolutionary tree. Archaeopteryx had been considered for 150 years to be the first known bird since the first complete specimen was found in Germany in 1861, revealing a combination of reptilian and and bird features. But Chinese researchers asserted recently that a new and closely related fossil, Xiaotingia zhengi, was a bird-like dinosaur - therefore suggesting that Archaeopteryx was also a dinosaur.




Giant fossil shows huge birds lived among dinosaurs   BBC - August 10, 2011
An enormous jawbone found in Kazakhstan is further evidence that giant birds roamed - or flew above - the Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.


Enormous bird lived alongside dinosaurs   MSNBC - August 10, 2011
All that's left of this big bird is its toothless lower jaw. The structure and characteristics of the jaw are associated with birds and not non-avian dinosaurs, the researchers believe. They conclude that the skull of the bird during its lifetime would have been about a foot long. If flightless, it could have stood close to 10 feet tall. If it flew, its wingspan is likely to have exceeded 13 feet. The big bird is now the second known large avian from the dinosaur era. The first to be identified was Gargantuavis philoinos, which lived in southern France around 70 million years ago. It too may have been flightless and ostrich-like.




'Oldest bird' knocked off its perch   MSNBC - July 27, 2011
The newfound fossil of a 155 million-year-old feathered dinosaur has led scientists to claim that Archaeopteryx, the species long held forth as the "oldest bird," is no bird at all. Chinese researchers made the claim in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, and an outside expert says the study "is likely to rock the paleontological community for years to come." Ohio University paleontologist Lawrence Witmer noted that the latest research, focusing on a fossil species dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi, comes 150 years after the discovery of Archaeopteryx, which marked a milestone in the study of the origin of birds.




Bird fossils reveal life's colorful chemistry   BBC - June 30, 2011

The pigments preserved in fossils, including a 120 million-year-old bird, have been revealed using X-rays. A team, led by scientists from the University of Manchester, UK, scanned the beautifully preserved fossils. Their study, published in the journal Science, revealed the chemical fingerprint of pigments that once tinted the ancient bird's feathers. Manchester paleontologist Phil Manning described the discovery as an insight into "the chemistry of life itself". As well as the color patterns of ancient creatures, pigments reveal fundamental clues about the chemical reactions that took place in their bodies, and the food the creatures ate that fueled those reactions.




Ancient Jamaican bird used wings to go clubbing   BBC - January 5, 2011
An extinct flightless bird from Jamaica fought rivals and predators using wings evolved into clubs, scientists suggest. The boney bludgeons carried by Xenicibis xympithecus are unlike anything else known in the bird world - or in mammals, reptiles or amphibians.




Extinct fighting bird swung its wings like clubs   MSNBC - December 29, 2010
Before humans wiped them out, the birds clobbered each other over territory. Some dinosaurs had club-like tails that they smacked into foes, and now researchers have discovered that the wings of an extinct Jamaican bird evolved into similar structures that the bird would use to clobber rivals during fights.




Pictures: Giant Fossil Bird Found With Spiky "Teeth"   National Geographic - September 16, 2010

Boasting a 17-foot (5.2-meter) wingspan and sharp, spiny "pseudoteeth," this ancient seabird is one of the largest flying birds known. Soaring above the oceans and mountains of what's now Chile between five and ten million years ago, the newly discovered species, named Pelagornis chilensis, was part of a prehistoric group known as the bony-toothed birds. The hollow spikes on the birds' beaks allowed the predators to grab slippery squid and fish from the ocean.




DNA of extinct birds extracted from ancient eggshell   BBC - March 10, 2010

Researchers have found that eggshells of extinct bird species are a rich source of preserved DNA. An international team isolated the delicate DNA molecules of species including the massive "elephant birds" of the genus Aepyorni. The Proceedings of the Royal Society B research demonstrated the approach also on emu, ducks and the extinct moa.




Earliest toothless bird found   PhysOrg - December 10, 2009

A new species of bird from the Cretaceous period in China has been identified. It had toothless upper and lower jaws, and provides significant information on the diversification in the evolution of birds during the Early Cretaceous. The new bird was around the size of a pigeon, and had a number of other unusual features, including having a humerus with a wide deltopectoral crest. It probably fed on fish (since the fossil was found in a lake bed), catching its prey on the wing. The shape of its feet suggests it may have rested, and possibly also nested, in trees.




New flying reptile fossils found   BBC - October 14, 2009

Researchers in China and the UK say they have discovered the fossils of a new type of flying reptile that lived more than 160 million years ago. The find is named Darwinopterus, after Charles Darwin. Experts say it provides the first clear evidence of a controversial idea called modular evolution. The 20 new fossils found in north-east China show similarities to both primitive and more advanced pterosaurs, or flying reptiles. Until now, scientists had known about two distinct groups of these creatures - primitive, long-tailed pterosaurs and more advanced short-tailed ones, separated by a gap in the fossil record. But the discovery of more than 20 new fossil skeletons in north-east China sits in the gap in this evolutionary chain.




Legendary man-eating New Zealand bird 'did exist'   Telegraph.co.uk - September 14, 2009

The Te Hokioi was described as a huge black-and-white predator with a red crest and yellow-green tinged wingtips, in an account given to Sir George Gray, an early governor of New Zealand. Scientists now think the stories handed down by word of mouth and depicted in rock drawings refer to Haast's eagle, a raptor that became extinct just 500 years ago. Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was discovered in swamp deposits by Sir Julius von Haast in the 1870s, the Independent reports. It was at first thought to be a scavenger because its bill was similar to a vulture's with hoods over its nostrils to stop flesh blocking its air passages as it rooted around inside carcasses.




Four-Winged Fossil Bridges Bird-Dinosaur Gap   Wired - September 25, 2009

A newly described, profusely feathered dinosaur may give lift to scientists’ understanding of bird and flight evolution, researchers report. The lithe creature, which stood about 28 centimeters tall at the hip, is the oldest known to have sported feathers and is estimated to be between 1 million and 11 million years older than Archaeopteryx, the first known bird.




Iridescence found in 40-million-year-old fossil bird feather   PhysOrg - August 26, 2009

Scientists discovered that nanostructures found in this 40-million-year-old fossil were responsible for producing iridescent colors in the living feather. Known for their wide variety of vibrant plumage, birds have evolved various chemical and physical mechanisms to produce these beautiful colors over millions of years. A team of paleontologists and ornithologists led by Yale University has now discovered evidence of vivid iridescent colors in feather fossils more than 40 million years old.

Ancient Bird's Feathers Had Iridescent Glow   Live Science - August 26, 2009
Nanostructures preserved in feather fossils more than 40 million years old show evidence that those feathers were once vivid and iridescent in color, paleontologists say. Iridescence is the quality of changing color depending on the angle of observation - it's what makes you see a rainbow in an oil slick. Many insects, such as butterflies, display iridescent colors on their wings, as do many modern birds on their feathers.




Fossil feathers reveal their hues BBC - July 9, 2008

The complex colored plumage of extinct birds which once soared over the heads of dinosaurs could soon be revealed. Scientists have shown they are able to interpret the colour patterns seen in 100-million-year-old fossil feathers. Writing in the journal Biology Letters, US researchers reveal how ancient feathers found in Brazil displayed "striking" bands of black and white. Previously, fossil experts could only guess at the range of hues exhibited by ancient birds and some dinosaurs.




Oldest Parrot Fossil Found -- In Scandinavia National Geographic - May 23, 2008

The fictional dead Scandinavian parrot that an unhappy customer tried to return in a famous Monty Python TV sketch may have a 54-million-year-old real-life ancestor, if a new study is to be believed. An ancient bird found on Denmark's Isle of Mors has already been nicknamed the "Danish blue" in honor of the fictional "Norweigan blue" breed of parrot featured in the 1970s British comedy show.




Dino-Era Seabird Fossils Found in New Zealand National Geographic - February 22, 2008

The oldest known bird fossils from New Zealand were recently unearthed along a remote stretch of beach on the Chatham Islands, researchers announced. The fossils represent possibly four new species of seabirds dating back to the late Cretaceous period, around 65 million years ago. Other remains from the same blocks of fossil-laden sandstone suggest that the birds co-existed with marine and terrestrial dinosaurs.




Ancient American bird was glider BBC - July 3, 2007

The largest bird known to have taken to the skies would have been a remarkable glider, scientists say. A North American team has studied the flight abilities of Argentavis magnificens, which lived six million years ago in Argentina. With its seven-metre (23ft) wingspan, the animal must have been an expert at riding thermals and updrafts. But, the team tells PNAS journal, at 70kg (155lbs) it might have struggled to get airborne by flapping its wings


Largest Flying Bird Could Barely Get off Ground, Fossils Show National Geographic - July 3, 2007
The largest bird that ever flew was an expert glider but was too heavy to fly by flapping its wings, researchers say. Getting off the ground was a challenge for the 155-pound (70-kilogram) Argentavis magnificens, a condor-like bird that lived in the Andes mountains and the pampas of Argentina about six million years ago. Despite its massive flight muscles and 21-foot (6.4-meter) wingspan, the giant bird probably could not generate enough lift to take off from a level surface, according to a new study. Like human hang gliders, Argentavis probably had to run downhill into a headwind to become airborne




Dodo Skeleton Found on Island, May Yield Extinct Bird's DNA National Geographic - July 3, 2007

Adventurers exploring a cave on an island in the Indian Ocean have discovered the most complete and well-preserved dodo skeleton ever found, scientists reported yesterday. Researchers say the find would likely yield the first useful samples of the extinct, flightless bird's DNA. Very little has been known about the dodo - from what exactly it looked like to what it ate - since it became extinct in the 1600s. The new skeleton is thought to be complete and was likely preserved by its cave setting. The cavers found the remains off the coast of Africa on Mauritius, the only island were dodos were known to have lived




Early Bird Used Four Wings to Fly Live Science - September 26, 2006




Dinosaur-Era Birds Surprisingly Ducklike, Fossils Suggest National Geographic - June 15, 2006

Fossil experts in China have unearthed a 110-million-year-old bird that is strikingly similar to today's birds, considering that it lived alongside dinosaurs. The ducklike diver, known to science as Gansus yumenensis, shows advanced features not common in the fossil record until much more recently. The discovery supports the view that key characteristics of modern birds evolved quickly and early, long before the demise of the dinosaurs. It is also indirect evidence that the common ancestor of all today's birds was, like Gansus, adapted to an aquatic lifestyle. Chinese and American paleontologists located the exquisitely preserved remains in mudstone slabs formed by sediments deposited on an ancient lake bottom.




Flying reptiles just got bigger BBC - September 9, 2005

Scientists are only now starting to recognize the astonishing size reached by pterosaurs, the flying reptiles that lived at the time of the dinosaurs. New discoveries in the Americas suggest some had wingspans of 18m (60ft). But there was nothing ugly about the way they moved through the air, according to expert Dr David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth. Their ability to utilize air currents, thermals and ground effects would astonish airplane designers.




Relatives Of Living Ducks And Chickens Existed Alongside Dinosaurs More Than 65 Million Years Ago Science Daily - January 2005

Newly published North Carolina State University research into the evolution of birds shows the first definitive fossil proof linking close relatives of living birds to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Research by paleontologist Dr. Julia A. Clarke, an assistant professor in the marine, earth and atmospheric sciences department at NC State, and colleagues provides unprecedented fossil proof that some close cousins to living bird species coexisted with dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. Information from a new avian species called Vegavis iaai indicates that these birds lived in the Cretaceous period and must have survived the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) mass extinction event that included the disappearance of all other dinosaurs.




Oldest hummingbird fossils found   BBC - May 6, 2004

A pair of 30 million-year-old fossils from southern Germany are the oldest fossil hummingbirds, a researcher says. The location of the finds is unexpected, because today the birds are only known from the Americas. The extinct hummingbirds may have influenced the shape of some modern Asian and African flowers. Other fossil hummingbirds have been found in Central America, Europe and Asia, but they are either very different from modern ones or are known from just a few bones. The new fossils, which have been assigned to the species Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, were endowed with long, nectar-sucking beaks and wings designed for feeding while hovering.




Feathered embryo found in China BBC - October 21, 2004

A 121-million-year-old baby arboreal bird, fossilized while still curled in its egg, has been found in China, Science magazine reports this week. The fossil is thought to be the most ancient unborn bird ever discovered. It has piqued researchers' interest because it had feathers, whereas many modern flying birds are naked and helpless when they first hatch. The authors say this supports the view that birds developed the strategy of hatching featherless later in history. This fossil is interesting because its preservation is so exceptionally fine, that even the soft tissues like feathers have been preserved. For an embryo that is still inside the egg, it is surprising how advanced the feathers were.



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