Bruce Museum announces discovery of new species of fossil bird

Bruce Museum Curator Dr. Daniel Ksepka has published a research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (July 10, 2017 issue). This paper announces the discovery of a new species of fossil bird in New Mexico.

Life reconstruction of the Tsidiiyazhi abini by artist Sean Murtha. The new species name is derived from the Diné Bizaad (Navajo) words for “little morning bird.”

Life reconstruction of the Tsidiiyazhi abini by artist Sean Murtha. The new species name is derived from the Diné Bizaad (Navajo) words for “little morning bird.”

The fossil is important because it is the oldest tree-dwelling species among modern bird groups. It lived just a few million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. Because of its place in the arboreal crown, the new species shows that birds radiated explosively in the aftermath of the Cretaceous mass extinction, rapidly splitting into different forms to pursue a variety of diets and lifestyles.

The bones were found by 11-year-old twins Ryan and Taylor Williamson, the sons of paleontologist Tom Williamson, one of the co-authors of the research. Surprisingly, the fossil belongs to a mousebird, a type of bird which today lives only in Africa. The team named the new species Tsidiiyazhi abini.

Fossil bones of Tsidiiyazhi abini, a 62.5 million year old fossil representing the oldest arboreal species of crown bird.

Fossil bones of Tsidiiyazhi abini, a 62.5 million year old fossil representing the oldest arboreal species of crown bird.

About the size of a nuthatch, Tsidiiyazhi abini had evolved specializations of the foot that let it reverse its fourth toe to better grasp onto branches. Research shows that this feature, called “semi-zygodactyly”, evolved independently in many different groups of birds.

The species name is derived from the Navajo language. Pronunciation of the genus name “Tsidiiyazhi” is similar to “City-Ya-Zee”, but with more of a “d” than “t” sound in the “city” part.

Pronunciation of the species name “abini” is “Ah-bin-ih.”

The name translates to “little morning bird,” referring to tiny size and the evolution of this bird early in the Paleocene.

Ryan Williamson and Taylor Williamson, the twin sons of Dr. Thomas Williamson, discovered the fossil site while on a weekend fossil collecting trip with their father when they were 11-years-old. — Photo by Dr. Thomas Williamson

Ryan Williamson and Taylor Williamson, the twin sons of Dr. Thomas Williamson, discovered the fossil site while on a weekend fossil collecting trip with their father when they were 11-years-old. — Photo by Dr. Thomas Williamson

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