Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Dallas paleontologist finds two new bird species in Alaska
Tony Fiorillo believes there are definitely more birds and dinosaurs to be found.
It doesn’t happen overnight, and in fact, it took world-renowned paleontologist Tony Fiorillo, curator of Dallas' Museum of Nature & Science, more than five years just to get to where he is today in regard to his most recent discovery. Fiorillo discovered two new species of prehistoric birds in Alaska.
Presenting the results of his finds at a meeting in 2009, the two new species were officially announced last month in an academic paper entitled Bird tracks from the Upper Cretaceous Cantwell Formation of Denali National Park, Alaska, USA: a new perspective on ancient northern polar vertebrate biodiversity.
“Pretty much since 2006, it has been crazy the way every year the discoveries are just so incredible -- there are just hundreds upon hundreds,” Fiorillo says about the work he has been doing in Alaska, particularly in Denali National Park for over 10 years.
Fiorillo found the two fossilized bird tracks, as well as five other species, dating back 70 million years in the middle of the park within a 25-mile transect that he and his team had been excavating.
“Of these seven, five we were able to figure out these look like bird tracks that people have described from other places,” he says. “But there were these two tracks that were a bit different, and ironically I suppose, one was really big and the other one was really small.”
The small one was named Gruipeda vegrandiunis. “We combined a couple of Latin words for small one,” he explains, adding that by “small,” he means roughly the size of the small- to medium-sized Sandpiper bird, normally found near water.
As for the larger bird, Fiorillo says the tracks equal a bird about 30 percent bigger than a Sandhill Crane, one of the largest cranes found in North America. “Given that we were in a park starring at the biggest mountain in North American, we decided to name the larger bird Magnoavipes denaliensis.”
This term also reflects the vast area of discovery, utilizing the native Koyukon Athabascan name for the region while also paying homage both to Denali National Park and nearby Mount McKinley.
Fiorillo confirms that both birds did live at the same time, since both were preserved in the same layer of rock.
“We think they all lived together and side by side with the dinosaurs like Horn Dinosaurs and various kinds of meat-eating dinosaurs -- and these birds actually had to share the sky because there were also some flying reptiles around.”
As for what his findings mean in the bigger scheme of things, first and foremost Fiorillo emphasizes that the new information increases what is already known about ancient biodiversity during the time of the dinosaur.
“The fact that there are seven types of birds flying around with these dinosaurs in addition to the flying reptiles tells us something about biodiversity,” he explains. “The other thing that is really interesting is Denali is a place that is pretty far north now, and it was back at the time these animals lived, too. It wasn’t something like these birds were living off the coast of California and then got hijacked by plate tectonics and moved to Alaska; these birds were northern birds.”
Combine that with everything else scientists already know, and Fiorillo points out, “it tells us something too about ancient polar climates being able to handle and support a great deal of biodiversity.”
Also in Fiorillo’s paper, there is mention of the similarities in the tracks he and his team found as compared to what has been found in western North American and Eastern Asia. It seems, he notes, that much like birds today, these prehistoric birds came from both continents to use Alaska as a nesting ground, with Alaska serving as a gateway between the two continents 70 million years ago.
Heading back up to Alaska this summer, Fiorillo believes there are definitely more birds and dinosaurs to be found.
“The most abundant place for finding fossil bird footprints is actually South Korea,” Fiorillo concludes. “This is remarkable bird diversity and to have it all come from one rock unit is unmatched anywhere on the planet. Hopefully, the story will keep unfolding.”
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