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One more terror for ancient ocean fish: monster ducks

Sept. 26, 2008
Courtesy Senckenberg Research Institute 
and Natural History Museum
and World Science staff

As if the little fish of the ancient seas didn’t have enough ter­rify­ing pre­da­tors to deal with, they also had to contend with duck-like birds, al­most the size of small air­planes, and armed with tooth-like spikes.

Dasornis emuinus in an artist's de­pict­ion. (Cre­dit: Sen­cken­berg Re­search In­sti­tute and Na­tur­al His­tory Mu­seum)


That’s the claim of re­search­ers who say these mon­strous water­fowl once skimmed across the ocean wa­ters over what is now the Lon­don region. Giv­ing “mother goose” a whole new mean­ing, the rel­a­tives of duck and geese had five-metre (15-foot) wing­spans, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists.

A new­found skull of one of the an­i­mals, dat­ed as 50 mil­lion years old, is de­scribed Sept. 26 in the re­search jour­nal Pal­ae­on­tol­ogy

It be­longs to Da­sor­nis, a bon­y-toothed bird, or pela­gor­nithid, re­search­ers said, and was disco­vered in the Lon­don Clay that lies un­der much of Lon­don, Es­sex and north­ern Kent in south­east­ern U.K.

That such birds lie in these de­posits has been long known, but the new fos­sil is one of the best skulls yet found, and re­veals pre­vi­ously un­known an­a­tom­ical de­tails, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

The birds were si­m­i­lar to al­ba­tross in their way of life, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Al­ba­tross have the larg­est wing­span of any liv­ing bird, but that of Da­sor­nis was over 40 per­cent great­er. De­spite these si­m­i­lar­i­ties, the lat­est re­search sug­gests that the clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives of Da­sor­nis and its fos­sil kin are ducks and geese, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists.

“By to­day’s stan­dards these were pret­ty bi­zarre an­i­mals, but per­haps the strang­est thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like pro­jec­tions along the cut­ting edges of the beak,” said Ger­ald Mayr of the Ger­man Senck­en­berg Re­search In­sti­tute and au­thor of the re­port. 

Like all liv­ing birds, Da­sor­nishad a beak made of ker­a­tin, the same sub­stance as our hair and fin­ger­nails, but it al­so had these bony “pseudo-teeth,” he added.

“No liv­ing birds have true teeth—which are made of enam­el and den­tine—be­cause their dis­tant an­ces­tors did away with them more than 100 mil­lion years ago, probably to save weight and make fly­ing eas­ier,” Mayr con­tin­ued.

“But the bon­y-toothed birds, like Da­sor­nis, are un­ique among birds in that they rein­vented tooth-like struc­tures by evolv­ing these bony spikes.” 

“These birds probably skimmed across the sur­face of the sea, snap­ping up fish and squid on the wing. With only an or­di­nary beak these would have been dif­fi­cult to keep hold of, and the pseudo-teeth evolved to pre­vent meals slip­ping away.”


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Duck-like birds almost the size of small airplanes, with tooth-like spikes in their beaks, once skimmed across the ocean waters over what is now London, researchers say. Giving “mother goose” a whole new meaning, the relatives of duck and geese had five-metre (15-foot) wingspans, according to the scientists. A newfound skull of one of the animals, dated as 50 million years old is described Sept. 26 in the research journal Palaeontology. It belongs to Dasornis, a bony-toothed bird, or pelagornithid, researchers said, and was discovered in the London Clay that lies under much of London, Essex and northern Kent in southeastern U.K. The occurrence of such birds in these deposits has been known for a long time, but the new fossil is one of the best skulls yet found, and reveals previously unknown anatomic details, according to the researchers. The birds were similar to albatross in their way of life, the investigators said. Albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird, but that of Dasornis was over 40 percent greater. Despite these similarities, the latest research suggests that the closest living relatives of Dasornis and its fossil kin are ducks and geese, according to the scientists. “By today’s standards these were pretty bizarre animals, but perhaps the strangest thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak,” said Gerald Mayr of the German Senckenberg Research Institute and author of the report. Like all living birds, Dasornis had a beak made of keratin, the same substance as our hair and fingernails, but it also had these bony “pseudo-teeth,” he added. “No living birds have true teeth—which are made of enamel and dentine—because their distant ancestors did away with them more than 100 million years ago, probably to save weight and make flying easier,” Mayr continued. “But the bony-toothed birds, like Dasornis, are unique among birds in that they reinvented tooth-like structures by evolving these bony spikes.” “These birds probably skimmed across the surface of the sea, snapping up fish and squid on the wing. With only an ordinary beak these would have been difficult to keep hold of, and the pseudo-teeth evolved to prevent meals slipping away.”