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Bird fossils provide new clues.

Bird fossils that date back 70,000,000 years found in the Antarctic region may provide new insights into how modern birds evolved. Discovered by Purdue University researcher Bill Zinsmeister and Francisco Mussel of the Instituto Antartico Argentino in Argentina, they provide a rare glimpse of the species during an interval of time when primitive, toothed birds were being replaced by modern types.

"We think we've found the 'Jackalope' of birds, with the body of a shore bird and the head of a duck," Zinsmeister indicates, referring to the nickname given to a fictitious rabbit that has the horns of an antelope. "The birds were probably about the size of a chicken."

The fossils also may provide new clues to the massive extinction of plants and animals that occurred during that time. They were discovered on Vega Island near the Antarctic Peninsula and provide scientists with the first record of bird bones from the southern region dating prior to the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary geological periods.

"Bird bones dating back to this period are known from a few places in the world, but most of them are fragmented and don't provide a great deal of information," Zinsmeister says, noting that bird bones are fragile and generally difficult to preserve, especially over long periods. For this reason, scientists have few fossil specimens available to trace the evolution of modern birds. The specimens collected in Antarctica appear to represent a complete set of bones, though they are not in a perfect arrangement. "What we have appears to be a 'sack of bones' that have settled and been preserved. The fossils [seem] to have originated from a carcass that was drifting in the water and sank to the bottom of the sea."

The area where the fossils were found provides a unique region in terms of paleontology and geology because it's the only one in Antarctica that contains rocks ranging from about 200,000,000 years to about 40,000,000 years in age. "Fossils are very abundant, and in some cases, the slopes on the hills of the island are literally paved with fossils. The problem one has when traveling to this area is in trying to decide which fossils to pick up."
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Title Annotation:clues to evolution of modern birds
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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