Citizen scientists' rare fossil birds shed new light on avian history

Patricia Petley with her fossil tentatively identified as belonging to the Coliiformes.

Paul Casadio's bird fossil tentatively identified as belonging to the extinct Zygodactylidae bird.

The Klockner bird fossil tentatively identified as belonging to the extinct Songziidae family.

April 01, 2019
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Until now, practically nothing has been known of Northern Hemisphere birds that lived at higher altitudes in the Ypresian—a geologic timespan between 56 and 48 million years ago—soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

But a team of paleontologists, led by Gerald Mayr of the Senkenberg Museum of Frankfurt, Germany, with Rolf Mathewes and Bruce Archibald from Simon Fraser University, and Gary Kaiser of the Royal BC Museum, has finally put together the first picture of avian history in northwestern North America at this time. Their study incorporates fossil birds discovered by citizen scientists.

As a paleoentomologist in SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences, Archibald normally focuses on insect fossils. However, after discovering that rare bird fossils had been found in the Interior of British Columbia and northern Washington, he began pursuing an entirely new direction.

“I was collecting fossil insects at Driftwood Canyon,” he says. “And while visiting the Bulkley Valley Museum in nearby Smithers, a volunteer showed me a crumpled,  yellowed clipping from the local newspaper, Interior News. It was about a bird fossil found in 1970 by Margaret Klöckner from Germany, who was visiting relatives in the region with her husband, Albrecht.”

Archibald was so intrigued that he cold-called everyone with a similar name in the region until he eventually reached the Klöckners, now home in Germany.

The Klöckners were delighted that the fossil turned out to be an important find and subsequently donated it to the Royal British Columbia Museum.

“The bird flew home,” cooed Albrecht Klöckner.

The paleontologists believe the fossil bird may be closely related to one of the same age from China that belongs to the extinct Songziidae family.

Archibald’s next stroke of luck occurred when he met Paul Casadio in Cache Creek. He had found a rare fossil bird at the nearby McAbee fossil site in 2001. It had been tucked safely in a box under his bed since he had discovered it as a teenager.

Casadio, too, was happy to donate the rare fossil to the Royal BC Museum.

The team has tentatively identified Casadio’s fossil as belonging to the Zygodactylidae, an extinct lineage of birds perhaps closely related to perching birds.

Finally, a discovery in 1968 by Patricia Petley at Driftwood Canyon tentatively belongs to the Coliiformes, the mousebirds, which today live in sub-Saharan Africa but ranged through much of the world in ancient times.

Petley’s bird spent 50 years traveling to various institutions across North America, puzzling many scientists, before finally landing in the collections of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, where Archibald found it.

Archibald himself discovered a bird fossil near Princeton and donated it to Kelowna’s Okanagan Heritage Museum.

“Well, part of a bird …” he says. “It’s only a leg and foot, but fossil bird bones of this age are so rare in our area that any bits are important.”

After gathering these and other fossils together, the scientists were able to piece together a record of Ypresian avian history, including new insight into the birds’ habitats.

The sites where they were found represent cooler uplands in a time of higher global temperatures, while previously known birds of this age from other parts of the world all inhabited warmer lowlands.

Archibald says that although the fossils’ identifications are tentative due to their manner of fossilisation, “they appear to represent kinds of birds that were previously unknown from this time in far-western, mid-latitude North America, and that’s important.”

He adds, “We can now begin to fill in an interesting gap in our knowledge, but there’s still lots more to discover.”

The study can be found in The Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences

See the Breakfast Television interview.