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GFR has two bits of news from the world of extinct animals for you today. Talking about long-dead species is far cheerier than talking about elephants. Today we get to talk about really old birds and nature’s greatest joke, the platypus.
First off, an Emory University paleontologist recently discovered 100 million year old bird footprints on a riverbank in the Dinosaur Cove cliffs in Victoria, Australia. Dinosaur Cove is situated in a valley formed when the supercontinent split apart and separated Australia from Antarctica. While the fossil might not look like much, researchers identified the drag mark, formed when a bird skids its rear foot across the ground during landing. Archeologists believe the prehistoric bird was about the size of a great egret or small heron, and they believe these fossilized prints are the oldest bird tracks ever to be found down under.
The track was found next to another fossilized footprint that may have come from a dinosaur. I like to imagine a ballsy bird landing right next to a T-Rex and maybe giving him a peck or two. Regardless, it does seem that such creatures coexisted in the relatively small and appropriately named Dinosaur Cove during the Early Cretaceous period.
One of the bird’s toes faced backward, which is a feature that some modern birds have retained, and a link that connects the birds to dinosaurs such as the T. Rex, which also had a backward rear toe. Who knew that something as inglorious as a toe might provide insight into the evolution of dinosaurs and birds?
And speaking of unusual features, it turns out that everyone’s favorite weird mammal, the duck-billed platypus, had a giant meat-eating ancestor. Digging around at another Australian site, this time in northwest Queensland, paleontologists from the University of New South Wales found the lower molar of an extinct species. At first they didn’t think it was anything special, as animal teeth are fairly common in these sites, but upon further examination, they realized that this one was unusually large. They concluded that it belonged to the giant platypus, which unlike your run of the mill platypi, had a full set of teeth for capturing and gobbling up prey, and grew up to a meter long. The current platypus doesn’t have teeth, which gives scientists some insight into its evolution.
Based on other fossils discovered at this site, researchers estimate that the giant platypus lived somewhere between 5 and 15 million years ago. It’s unusual to identify a species from only one fossilized tooth, but that’s the beauty of science for you. Sadly, the platypus has been in decline for a long time, as there’s now only a single species left. Maybe they can become friends with the elephants.