26/01/2014
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Ancient seabird fossil found in New Zealand already 'like modern birds'

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An artist's impression of Australornis, which shares features with several modern bird groups.
An artist's impression of Australornis, which shares features with several modern bird groups.
Bones of a previously unknown ancient seabird unearthed in New Zealand have proved to belong to the group of modern birds despite their age. 

Thought to have lived between 60.5 and 61.6 million years ago, the fossil bird species – named Australornis lovei – lived shortly after the big extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago.

Bones of the bird were discovered in 2009 in rocks representative of the early Paleocene Waipara Greensand near Canterbury, South Island, by Leigh Love, an amateur fossil collector. The new species, Australornis lovei has been named in honour of Love’s discovery. The bird lacks key morphological features of penguins, though it was found near the fossils of Waimanu manneringi, the oldest penguin, estimated to be of the same age.

The research is published in Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand by Dr Gerald Mayr and Dr Paul Scofield. The authors say the discovery "represents one of the most significant records of a marine Paleocene bird from the Southern Hemisphere" and supports the "emerging view that most modern birds were already diversified in the earliest Paleogene".

Despite the distinctness of the wing and pectoral girdle bones found belonging to this new species, it shares derived features with several single modern bird groups, though it appear to be unrelated to the penguins. It does resemble an extinct species from Antarctica, however, highlighting the links between Antarctica and New Zealand in the late Cretaceous period, and showing that that modern birds (Neoaves) were already diversified in the earliest Paleogene.
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