MARCH 3, 2020
A new species of quail-sized fossil bird from 44 million year old sediments in Utah fills in a gap in the fossil record of the early extinct relatives of chickens and turkeys, and it shows strong links with other extinct species from Namibia in Southern Africa and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
In their paper in the online scientific journal Diversity, the authors Dr. Thomas Stidham (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences), Dr. Beth Townsend (Midwestern University, Arizona), and Dr. Patricia Holroyd (University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley) describe the fossil of a distinct tiny bone from the shoulder girdle of an extinct quail-like bird from 44 million year old rocks in eastern Utah. While it is a unique fossil, the authors have not given it a formal scientific name, waiting until they find more bones of the skeleton. This new Utah bird appears to be the oldest fossil of the extinct group called Paraortygidae, a relative of the living Galliformes (the group that includes the living chicken, turkey, guineafowl, and quail). This fossil fits in a nearly 15 million-year gap in the fossil record of the galliform lineage in North America.
This extinct species is similar in size to the smallest living Galliformes like quail and hill partridges. It likely lived before the evolution of the large crop and gizzard that we see in living chickens and turkeys, and therefore the Utah species likely had a diet different from its living relatives. The earliest fossils of this paraortygid group are from arid habitats, the seashore, and inland forests demonstrating that they had flexibility in their ecology and diet.
Another interesting aspect of this new fossil is that it closely resembles the small size and unique shape of other early paraortygid fossils from sediments with a similar geological age from Namibia in southern Africa and Uzbekistan in Central Asia which were all separated from each other by oceans.