Two Fossil Bird Finds Raise Questions

two fossil bird finds raise a question

Two fossil bird finds are in the news in March, after important finds were announced in Peru and in China. Klaus Honninger, the head of a team of paleontologists in Peru, revealed Friday that a giant 35 million year old pelicanlike bird had been discovered in that country’s Ica desert.

The bird, found on March 6, was singled out as special because it was well-preserved enough to clearly show traces of the ancient skin. The Oligocene-era pelican would have stood over 6-1/2 feet tall, and it was found in a coastal area rich in whale, shark, and penguin fossils.

Honninger is a well-regarded fossil hunter who has made big discoveries in Peru before, including the first Peruvian skeleton of a Megalodon shark species in 2006 and 16-million year-old skull of a Kentriodon whale species.

The other fossil bird find, from China, is a tad more problematical. Dan Evon first reported on the discovery for The Inquistr on Thursday, after Chinese paleontologist Xing Xu went public with his claim that he’d found the fossils of four-winged birds.

To some eyes, including this perhaps somewhat cynical writer, what he actually found was fossils of birds with the normal complement of wings, along with heavily feathered legs.

And it doesn’t help that Chinese bird fossils in general, and Xing Xu in particular, have something of a history of oversell. In 1999, National Geographic was the victim of an outrageous fossil bird hoax, the so-called Archaeoraptor which was purported to be the missing link between modern birds and meat-eating dinosaurs.

The trouble was that the specimen was fabricated from pieces of up to five individual birds of two different species. Xing Xu, already a senior paleontologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing at that time, is was one of the scientists who was originally fooled.

To his credit, when he realized that the fossil might be a fake, he performed an indepth hunt for evidence and eventually discovered one of the slabs used in the fabrication process.

Xing Xu isn’t a deliberate hoaxer. But even sincere men can sometimes let their enthusiasm carry them away. I don’t doubt that the new fossils might show feathers on the legs as well as the wings of the birds in questions.

I do doubt that such feathers mean they had four wings.

A couple of pictures of modern birds — in this case, trumpeter pigeons — should suffice to convince you that feathery legs don’t mean four-winged flight.

not a four-winged bird
not a four-winged English trumpeter

Four-winged birds? Nope, I’m firmly in the camp of the doubters who think the heavily feathered legs were ornaments to attract mates. What do you think about the new fossil bird finds?

[pelican photo by Elaine Radford]