Paleo Profile: The Smoke Hill Bird

Photo by Brian Switek.
Hesperornis, restored at the New Mexico Museum of Nature and Science, was a cousin of the newly-named Fumicollis. Photo by Brian Switek.

During the late 19th century, as paleontologists were starting to uncover an array of prehistoric species that evolutionary theory predicted must have existed, ancient birds from the Cretaceous rock of Kansas became a scientific sensation. These were birds with teeth. The pair of them – dubbed Ichthyornis and Hesperornis by Yale’s Othniel Charles Marsh – underscored that birds evolved from toothy reptilian ancestors (which we now know were dinosaurs akin to Velociraptor).

Not that the archaic avians have always been popular. Upon seeing the government-funded monograph on the birds Marsh produced, penny-pinching congressmen turned “Birds with teeth!” as an incredulous cost-cutting rallying cry. And while the birds still show up in museums, they’re often overshadowed by their fuzzy non-avian relatives among the Dinosauria. Among a few others, however, paleontologists Alyssa Bell and Luis Chiappe have been taking a new look at these toothed birds, and, in fact, they’ve found a new one.

The new old bird, dubbed Fumicollis hoffmani by Bell and Chiappe, was one of these hesperornithiforms. These were loon-like diving birds that paddled through a now-vanished sea that washed over the midsection of North America. And, for a prehistoric bird, there’s actually quite a bit of Fumicollis to study. The vertebrae, hip pieces, and legs of the diver, originally excavated in 1937 and assigned to a different bird called Baptornis, allowed Bell and Chiappe to distinguish Fumicollis from other related birds.

All of a sudden the ancient environment preserved by the Smoky Hill Chalk is starting to look a little crowded. At least four different hesperornithiform birds, including Fumicollis, have been found in an upper section of the deposit that spans about five million years. That’s still a lot of time, and perhaps the birds were temporally separated. But what if they were actually ecological neighbors? If this were the case, Bell and Chiappe write, then the distribution of toothy diving birds through time and space might have been similar to what’s seen among modern penguins – a variety of species of different size classes could have partitioned the habitat, with some being deep divers and others foraging closer to the surface. If you were to plop into the waters of Kansas around 85 million years ago, and weren’t immediately eaten by a mosasaur, you may have been greeted by a diverse aviary of grinning birds.

The diversity of hesperornithiforms. From Bell and Chiappe, 2015.
The diversity of hesperornithiforms. From Bell and Chiappe, 2015.

Fossil Facts

Name: Fumicollis hoffmani

Meaning: Fumicollis is Latin for “smoke hill”, in reference to the Smoky Hill Member of the formation in which the bird was found, and the species name hoffmani honors museum donors Karen and Jim Hoffman.

Age: Around 85 million years old.

Where in the world?: Logan County, Kansas.

What sort of critter?: A toothed diving bird technically known as a hesperornithiform.

Size: About the size of a modern loon or grebe.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: Eight vertebrae, rib gragments, elements of the hips, parts of the right leg and foot, and a nearly-complete left leg.

Reference:

Bell, A., Chiappe, L. 2015. Identification of a new hesperornithiform from the Cretaceous Niobrara Chalk and implications for ecological diversity among early diving birds. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141690

Previous Paleo Profiles:

The Unfortunate Dragon
The Cross Lizard
The South China Lizard
Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon
The Fascinating Scrap
The Sloth Claw
The Hefty Kangaroo
Mathison’s Fox
Scar Face
The Rain-Maker Lizard
“Lightning Claw”
The Ancient Agama
The Hell-Hound
The Cutting Shears of Kimbeto Wash
The False Moose
“Miss Piggy” the Prehistoric Turtle
Mexico’s “Bird Mimic”
The Greatest Auk
Catalonia’s Little Ape
Pakistan’s Butterfly-Faced Beast
The Head of the Devil
Spain’s Megatoothed Croc

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