A flightless, swimming, polar vulture: the great auk

And the puffin
(Fig. 4) is a swimming, polar vulture, too. It’s smaller than the auk (Fig. 1)and it can still fly.

Figure 1. The great auk (genus Pinguinus) is a flightless vulture convergent with penguins.

Figure 1. The great auk (genus Pinguinus) is a flightless vulture convergent with penguins.

The great auk
(genus Pinguinus) is a recently extinct fairly large, penguin-like bird of the North Atlantic. In the large reptile tree (LRT, 1096 taxa) it nests with Coragyps, the extant black vulture.

Figure 2. Pinguinus the great auk skull.

Figure 2. Pinguinus the great auk skull.

Pinguinus impennis (Linneaus 1758; standing 80cm in height) is the recently extinct great auk. Here it nests with the puffin and vultures. Convergent with penguins like AptenodytesPinguinus was flightless, but a good swimmer underwater.

It’s worthwhile to keep
the skeleton of the vulture Coragyps (Fig. 3) in mind when comparing skeletons.

Figure 3. When vultures drift north and start finding fish attractive they evolve into auks and puffins.

Figure 3. When vultures drift north and start finding fish attractive they evolve into auks and puffins.

Coragyps atratus (LaMout 1853; 56 cm in length, 1.5m wingspread) is the extant black vulture and a sister to the giant petrel. Note the similar premaxilla. As in Threskiornis, the head and neck lack feathers.

Everyone knows
Puffins (genus Fratercula) are just small auks that can still fly, even with those short whirring wings. The earlier issue was with the next level of relationships, which are traditionally relegated to suprageneric taxa

Figure 4. The skull of the puffin (genus: Fratercula) with and without the keratin beak.

Figure 4. The skull of the puffin (genus: Fratercula) with and without the keratin beak.

Fratercula arctica (Linneaus 1758; standing 20cm in height) is the extant Atlantic or common puffin. Here it nests with the great auk and vultures, hamerkops (genus: Scopus) and gulls. Both genders have a tall, colorful beak.

According to Wikipedia
birds of prey (Telluraves) includes the taxa shown below (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Bird relationships according to Wikipedia with comments in red.

Figure 5. Bird relationships according to Wikipedia with comments in red. I never thought the birds would be this messed up. Maybe starting with a smaller taxon list was a good idea this time. Kept things simple.

Unfortunately
The LRT (Fig. 6) does not support several of the traditional bird relationships shown on the Wiki page (Fig. 5), and a good look at the relationships will suggest the gaps between sister clades are just too big. Plus, relying on suprageneric taxa always causes problems and never pinpoints actual sister genera. Test these relationships yourself, as I have, and let me know if you recover anything different.

Figure 5. Subset of the LRT focusing on auk and puffin relatives.

Figure 6. Subset of the LRT focusing on auk and puffin relatives.

I’ve been binging on Burning Man Festival videos
on YouTube and in the spirit of their cashless, gift-giving temporary society, this blog featuring the results of my studies is my gift to you.

References
LeMaout JEM 1853. Les trois regnes de la nature. Regne animal. Histoire naturalle des oiseaux, suivant la classification de M. Isidore Geoffroy-Saint-Hillaire, avec l’indication de leurs moeurs et de leurs rapports avec les arts, le commerce et l’agriculture. Par Emm. Le Maout. L. Curmer. Paris 425 pp.
Linnaeus C 1758. Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.

wiki/Coragyps atratus
wiki/Atlantic_puffin
wiki/Great_auk

 

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Giant flightless birds: Worthy et al. 2017

Worthy et al. nest several giant flightless birds
with chickens and ducks. In the large reptile tree (LRT, 1094 taxa, subset Fig. 1) none of these giants nest with chickens and ducks. Furthermore, chickens (Gallus) and ducks (Anas) don’t nest with each other in the LRT. They don’t look like each other, so their separation makes sense.

Figure 1. Subset of the LRT focusing on birds. Here giant and tiny birds are highlighted. None nest with chickens or ducks, which don't nest with each other.

Figure 1. Subset of the LRT focusing on birds. Here giant and tiny birds are highlighted. None nest with chickens or ducks, which don’t nest with each other.

From the Worthy et al. abstract:
“The extinct dromornithids, gastornithids and phorusrhacids are among the most spectacular birds to have ever lived, with some giants exceeding 500 kg. The affinities and evolution of these and other related extinct birds remain contentious, with previous phylogenetic analyses being affected by widespread convergence and limited taxon sampling. We recognize a robust new clade (Gastornithiformes) for the giant flightless Dromornithidae (Australia) and Gastornithidae (Eurasia, North America). This clade exhibits parallels to ratite palaeognaths in that flight presumably was lost and giant size attained multiple times South America’s largest bird, Brontornis, is not a galloansere, but a member of Neoaves related to Cariamiformes.”

Figure 2. Brontornis parts compared to Gastornis, a close match both in size and morphology.

Figure 2. Brontornis parts compared to Gastornis, a close match both in size and morphology.

Brontornis bits ‘n pieces
Apparently Brontornis is known from a big metatarsus and a big fused dentary (lower beak), perhaps not enough to nest it in the LRT, but South American terror birds (Cariamiformes according to Worthy et al., a clade not supported here, Fig. 1) have a very narrow beak, whereas Brontornis does not. Here (Fig. 2) the shape and size of Brontornis is quite similar to the giant parrot, Gastornis (formerly Diatryma).

While writing this paragraph
I was drawn to the Wiki Brontornis page, which reports (after describing Brontornis as a giant, flightless terror bird), “Recent work (Agnolin 2007, Buffetaut 2014) ]has cast doubt on the hypothesis that Brontornis is a phorusrhacid. Brontornis may actually represent an anseriform” (traditionally ducks, geese and screamers, but the LRT nests screamers apart). Not sure why the Brontornis/wiki author could not make a scientific statement with more confidence. After all, there is only one answer. The other is false.

From the Worthy et al. introductiion
“Landfowl (Galliformes) and waterfowl (Anseriformes) form a diverse and important clade (Galloanseres) that is sister to Neoaves (all other extant non-palaeognath birds).” This is what Prum 2015 recovered using DNA, but it is not what the LRT recovered (Figs. 1–4) using morphology and extinct taxa.

Worthy et al. also report, 
“These giant flightless Galloanseres show striking morphological convergence with flightless palaeognaths (ratites), especially the large extinct Aepyornithidae (elephant birds; Madagascar) and Dinornithiformes (moa; New Zealand).” The LRT recovers elephant birds (Aepyornis) with corn crakes (Crex) and moas (Dinornis) between toucans (Pteroglossus) and parrots (Ara, Figs. 1, 3-5). So Worthy et al. appear to be basing their hypotheses on very shaky ground.

While we’re on the subject of birds
here are a few clade divisions recovered by the LRT.

Figure 2. Bird clades, basal divisions.

Figure 3. Bird clades, basal divisions. Where are all the Late Cretaceous birds? They are waiting to be discovered.

Figure 2. Bird predators and omnivores compared to plant/nectar eaters.

Figure 4. Bird predators and omnivores compared to plant/nectar eaters.

Figure 4. Most basal birds have a premaxilla about the length of the maxilla. That changes in these two basal clades.

Figure 5. Most basal birds have a premaxilla about the length of the maxilla. That changes in these two basal clades. I know I’m pulling a Larry Martin here, but after the phylogenetic analysis, not before. This trait stood out as a readily visible major division at a node that has remained difficult to establish for prior analyses.

The basal radiation of extant birds
has been clouded in mystery in prior studies. Here, with fewer taxa (Figs 1-5), the radiation is quite clear and it probably occurred deep into the Early Cretaceous with a large gap sprinkled with taxa until the Tertiary and then greatly expanded with living taxa.

References
Agnolin F 2007. Brontornis burmeisteri Moreno & Mercerat, un Anseriformes (Aves) gigante del Mioceno Medio de Patagonia, Argentina. Revista del Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, n.s.9, 15-25.
Buffetaut E 2014. Tertiary ground birds from Patagonia (Argentina) in the Tournouër collection of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France. 185(3):207–214.
Worthy TH, Degrange FJ, Handley WD and Lee MSY 2017. The evolution of giant flightless birds and novel phylogenetic relationships for extinct fowl (Aves, Galloanseres). Royal Society Open Science 4: 170975. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170975

tetrapodzoology/terror-birds

A crow, owl and swift are added to the LRT

Today
several taxa (in yellow-green, listed below, Figs. 1-3) were added to the LRT. Along the way several scoring errors were corrected which shifted the giant sea bird with bony teeth, Pelagornis (in amber, Fig. 4), to nest with Macronectes, the petrel.

Figure 1. The latest additions to the LRT are shown in light green. Pelagornis, which has just moved to nest with petrels, is in amber.

Figure 1. The latest additions to the LRT are shown in light green. Pelagornis, which has just moved to nest with petrels, is in amber.

Corvus the crow nests between the the heron, Ardea, and a large clade that includes flying sea birds, storks, ducks, vultures, hummingbirds, dippers, wrens and penguins.

Figure 2. Apus the common swift is actually a close relative of the falcon and owl, not a hummingbird.

Figure 2. Apus the common swift is actually a close relative of the falcon and owl, not a hummingbird.

Apus the swift nests between Falco the falcon and Tyto, the barn owl. Earlier Eocypselus was promoted as a swift + hummingbird ancestor. Here Eocypselus is only a hummingbird relative.

Figure 3. Tyto, the barn owl, nests very close to Apus, the swift.

Figure 3. Tyto, the barn owl, nests very close to Apus, the swift.

Pelagornis, the giant sea bird, has a new skull shape (Fig. 4). This came about after the realization that some birds have a very long maxilla. Other birds essentially turn the maxilla into a vestige. We’ll look at that major difference and many others in a future blog post.

FIgure 1. Pelagornis, new reconstruction of skull along with overall reconstruction from Mayr and Rubilar-Rogers

FIgure 4. Pelagornis, new reconstruction of skull along with overall reconstruction from Mayr and Rubilar-Rogers

Birds are tough,
but I’m learning their details along the way. Phylogenetic analysis is a great way to dissect a taxon, trait by trait.

References
wiki/Macronectes
wiki/Pelagornis
wiki/Apus
wiki/Tyto

Spoonbill: it really is a duck-stork

Maybe the spoonbill
(Fig. 1) is the closest thing we have today to Presbyornis (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. The roseate spoonbill (genus: Platalea) in vivo. Traditionally spoonbills and storks have been nested together. Here it nests between storks and ducks.

Figure 1. The roseate spoonbill (genus: Platalea) in vivo. Traditionally spoonbills and storks have been nested together. Here it nests between storks and ducks.

Short one today. Pretty obvious results.
The extant spoonbill (Platalea) with its featherless face (Fig. 1), gives the impression of being very ancient. The large reptile tree (LRT, 1090 taxa) nests it between storks (check out those long legs) and ducks (check out that spoon bill), including long-legged ducks (Fig. 2) like Presbyornis.

Figure 4. Presbyornis is the prehistoric long-legged duck, close to the elephant bird, Aepyornis.

Figure 4. Presbyornis is the prehistoric long-legged duck, close to the elephant bird, Aepyornis.

The only trouble is
spoonbills typically nest only with storks, far from ducks, which typically nest closer to screamers, like Chauna.

You can see the gradual accumulation of traits
using morphological traits. That doesn’t always happen with DNA.

From the ReptileEvolution page:
Presbyornis pervetus
(Wetmore 1926; Olson and Feduccia 1980; earliest Eocene, 62 mya) is one of the first of the clade Anseriformes (ducks, geese and kin). It is known from scattered bones and was originally considered a flamingo relative, due to its long legs. The duck-like skull was found later.

References
Linnaeus C 1758. Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.
Olson SL and Feduccia A 1980. Presbyornis and the origin of the Anseriformes (Aves: Charadriomorphae). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 323: 1–24.
Wetmore A 1926. Fossil birds from the Green River deposits of Eastern Utah. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 16: 391-402.

wiki/Platalea
wiki/Anas
wiki/Presbyornis

Roman Uchytel. Taking paleoart to the next level.

Figure 1. Roman Uchytel is the arist/naturalist who is bringing prehistoric beasts and birds back to life.

Figure 1. Roman Uchytel is the arist/naturalist who is bringing prehistoric beasts and birds back to life.

Here’s an artist worth noting.
Roman Uchytel (Fig. 1) says it best himself, “Using only their skeletons, I bring creatures to life that roamed the same routes that take you to and from work hundreds of thousands of years ago.”

His mission:
“Roman Uchytel’s galleries constitute the first resource solely dedicated to the reconstruction of prehistoric animals beyond the dinosaurs. These are not photographs, but rather, artistic recreations from the skeletons of ancient animals that roamed the earth millions of years ago. Many of these fascinating creatures are unfamiliar to the public and remain a mystery even to science.”

Figure 2. Homepage for Roman Uchytel's images. Click to visit.

Figure 2. Homepage for Roman Uchytel’s images. Click to visit.

Check out his website
and you will be filled with wonder: https://prehistoric-fauna.com

 

What is a flamingo in the cladogram of birds?

In the present subset
of the large reptile tree (LRT, 1090 taxa, Fig. 3) flamingoes (genus: Phoenicopterus, Fig. 1) nest with the seriema (genus: Cariama, Fig. 2). That makes the flamingo a sort of bird of prey, now concentrating on tiny plankton (algae + invertebrates). That’s why they are so distinct.

Wikipedia lists several studies
that nest flamingoes with ducks, spoonbills and/or doves.

Prum et al. 2015 used DNA
to nest flamingoes with grebes. These submersible sharp-rostrum, hind limb swimmers have not yet been added to the LRT, but grebes look more like loons, similar to Gavia. Until that analysis,  here’s a loon skeleton online. So when grebes are added, I’ll let you know how that works out.

The closest tested relative
of Phoenicopterus in the Prum et al. tree is Uria, the murre, which we looked at yesterday, Here, Uria nests between dippers and penguins, far from Phoenicopterus (Fig. 3).

So, apparently there is no consensus
out there regarding flamingo relatives. Are the flamingo-like traits of Cariama convergent or homologous? The answer has to come from comparative anatomy. DNA fails too often to deliver sisters who actually look like one could evolved from the other or from a common ancestor sharing a long list of traits.

Figure 1. Phoenicopterus, the flamingo, currently and provisionally nests with Cariama in the LRT.

Figure 1. Phoenicopterus, the flamingo, currently and provisionally nests with Cariama in the LRT.

Phoenicopterus chilensis (Molina 1782) is the extant flamingo, a long-legged filter-feeder with pink plumage. Here it ness with Cariama, the seriema.

Figure 2. The seriema(genus: Cariama) is the closest taxa to Yanornis in the LRT. The two resemble one another in most details, but Cariama lacks teeth, has a retracted naris and an elevated pedal digit 1.

Figure 2. The seriema (genus: Cariama) is the closest taxa to Yanornis in the LRT. The two resemble one another in most details, but Cariama lacks teeth, has a retracted naris and an elevated pedal digit 1.

Cariama cristatus (Linneaus 1766) is the extant seriema, a grasslands predator from South America. It flies only to escapte predators. Here it is basal to the flamingo, Phoenicopterus. At present it is easy to see why they nest together. And this is where the LRT shines.

Figure 7. The addition of the cuckoo, Coccyzus, to the LRT cements the nesting of the roadrunner, Geococcyx, with the heron, Ardea.

Figure 3. Taking advantage of an earlier cladogram, note the nesting of Phoenicopterys with the birds of prey, including Cariama.

If anyone can find a better match
for flamingoes, please let me know. Otherwise, you heard it here first. Meanwhile, I’m surprised to see what I learn in just a few hours has not been discovered before. This is not rocket science.

References
Linneaus C 1766. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio duodecima, reformata. Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii).: 1-532.
Molina JI 1782. Saggio sulla Storia Naturale del Chili. Bologna, Stamperia di S. Tommaso d’Aquino. 349 pp.

wiki/Flamingo
wiki/Seriema

 

Dippers, murres and the origin of penguins

Today
we’re going to take a heretical look at the origin of penguins, those short-legged, super-insulated, flightless, fish- & squid-eaters. Some can dive for 22 minutes down to 550 meters.

According to Wikipedia
the relationships of the penguin subfamilies (order: Sphenisciformes) and the placement of penguins among the birds “is not resolved.” By contrast, in the LRT the relationship of penguins among birds is completely resolved.

Basal penguins,
like Waimanu, are known from Antarctica and New Zealand from the early Paleocene. Waimanu was flightless and likely swam with both its short wings and paddling feet. This derived bird at the K-T boundary points to a much earlier radiation of more primitive, crane-like extant birds, apparently starting just before Yanornis in the Early Cretaceous.

Figure 1. Subset of the LRT focusing on extant birds, especially penguins.

Figure 1. Subset of the LRT focusing on extant birds, especially penguins.

In the large reptile tree
(LRT, 1089 taxa) penguin ancestors going back to Devonian fish are recovered. However, presently and provisionally two taxa are proximal penguin sisters in the LRT and these are derived from even more basal and high-energy terns, swifts and kingfishers.

Figure 1. Cinclus, the dipper is basal to penguins.

Figure 1. Cinclus, the dipper is basal to penguins.

Dippers like Cinclus (Fig. 2) traditional nest with Passer, the seed-eating sparrow. Not here (Fig. 1). Cinclus flies, walks and dips into fast moving freshwater streams to walk underwater. It flies underwater on short wings and it likes cold waters. Nasal flaps prevent water from entering the nostrils. The bones are solid to decrease buoyancy and the feathers are waterproof. The eyes can focus underwater.

Dippers can remain underwater for up to 30 seconds. They have a slower metabolism, despite their active lifestyle. Dippers do not live in colonies and they are smaller than their phylogenetic predecessors.

Phylogenetic miniaturization,
(the Lilliput effect) as we have seen with reptiles, mammals, pterosaurs, snakes, bats, dinosaurs, turtles, etc., leads to key internal structural changes. In the case of Cinclus, these apparently involve those initial adaptations to cold and water. And with these traits in its toolbox, the descendants of Cinclus were free to grow larger, get fatter, loser their ability to fly, gain the ability to handle deeper water and withstand colder nesting grounds away from predators.

FIgure 2. Cinclus, Uria and Aptenodytes, three taxa in the origin of penguins.

FIgure 2. Cinclus, Uria and Aptenodytes, three taxa in the origin of penguins. Despite their apparent differences, the LRT nests these three taxa together in a single clade.

Representing another transitional phase
Murres like Uria (Fig. 2; 45cm), traditional nest with snipes, plovers, terns, stilts, gulls puffins and auks (= Charadriiformes),. That’s a pretty diverse clade. Some of these also appear in the penguin clade of the LRT. Many workers consider murres to be unrelated to penguins, despite appearances. Murres are all north of the equator, while penguins stay south. Uria has pelican-like plumage (black and white) and is better adapted to swimming underwater (up to  4 minutes) with a longer torso and longer sternum. Digit 1 becomes a vestige and the rib cage extends nearly to the ankle. Murres live in colonies near sea waters.

Penguins like Aptenodytes (Fig. 3) traditionally nest with loons, like Gavia. Here (Fig. 1) they don’t. Penguins are flightless, trend toward larger, can swim better and seek larger prey. Finger 1 disappears. The pygostyle straightens out. The scapula grows larger. The metatarsus becomes shorter than the pedal digits. Again, these are all minor and gradual accumulations of traits.

 

Cinclus cinclus (Linneaus 1758 (Sturnus cinclus); Borkhausen 1797; 18 cm long) is the extant white-throated dipper. Its short wings whirr swiftly and without pauses or glides. From a perch it will walk into the water and deliberately submerg. It ‘flies’ underwater. Prey includes aquatic invertebrates. This is one of the most basal taxa among neognath birds. This clade developed a very deep sternum.

Uria lomvia (Linneaus 1758; 45cm tall) is the extant thick-billed murre. It is a strong flyer, both in the air and underwater. Basal to penguins, and derived from Cinclus, Uria also has an elongate sternum, two more dorsal vertebrae + ribs, and short wings.

Here is a unique video of YouTube. of a beluga whale toying with a tiny dipper… or is it the other way around. Enjoy! Nullius in verba

Figure YouTube: Click to see the entire charming video of a beluga whale making friends with a tiny dipper.

Figure YouTube: Click to see the entire charming video of a beluga whale making friends with a tiny dipper.

References
Deguine, J-C 1974. Emperor Penguin: Bird of the Antarctic. The Stephen Greene Press, Vermont.
Hackett S et al. 2008. A phylogenetic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science 320:1763–1768.
Linnaeus C 1758. Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.

wiki/White-throated_dipper
wiki/Penguin
wiki/Uria