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Scientists Shed Light on Ancient Terror Bird

Apr 10, 2015 03:09 PM EDT
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Strange 160-million-year-old fossils reveal that the earliest mammals could glide

Scientists have recently discovered an exceptionally well-preserved fossil that is helping to shed light on an ancient terror bird, according to a new study.

The new species, described in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, is the most complete South American terror bird ever discovered, with more than 90 percent of the skeleton exquisitely preserved.

Terror birds, or phorusracids, were the most dominating predators alive during the Cenozoic Age in South America, standing up to 3 meters (10 feet) tall and sporting tall, hooked beaks.

Scientists named this latest fossil Llallawavis scagliai ("Scaglia's Magnificent Bird"), and hope to learn from it more about these giant extinct predators, such as how diverse this group was and how they interacted with their environment.

"The discovery of this species reveals that terror birds were more diverse in the Pliocene than previously thought. It will allow us to review the hypothesis about the decline and extinction of this fascinating group of birds," Dr. Federico Degrange, lead author of the study, said in a press release.

The new specimen - which stood at 4 feet tall and lived in Argentina roughly 3.5 million years ago - is also revealing details of anatomy that are rarely preserved in the fossil record. This includes the auditory region of the skull, voice box, complete trachea, bones for focusing the eye, and the complete palate, allowing an unprecedented understanding of the sensory capabilities of these extinct predatory birds.

"The mean hearing estimated for this terror bird was below the average for living birds," added Degrange. "This seems to indicate that Llallawavis may have had a narrow, low vocalization frequency range, presumably used for intraspecific acoustic communication or prey detection."

This is the first time that researchers have reconstructed the structures responsible for hearing sensitivity for any terror bird, and it may help explain the evolution, behavior, and ecology of this group of fossil birds.

"The discovery of this new species provides new insights for studying the anatomy and phylogeny of phorusrhacids and a better understanding of this group's diversification," concluded study co-author Dr. Claudia Tambussi.

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