An extinct species of bristlebird has been discovered in 18-million-year-old rocks in northwestern Queensland.
Bristlebirds are small ground-dwelling birds that are named after the bristles or ‘whiskers’ around their beaks. There are only three bristlebird species alive today, two of which are endangered. They are part of an enormously diverse group called songbirds, which make up more than half of all living birds. Songbirds are believed to have originated in the Australian region before spreading to the rest of the world.
The new bristlebird species, Walter's Bristlebird (Dasyornis walterbolesi), is named after former Australian Museum ornithologist Dr Walter Boles. Walter's many contributions include the naming of several new species of fossil and living birds including the Eungella Honeyeater, as well as the re-discovery of the long-lost Night Parrot.
At 18 million years old, Walter's Bristlebird is the oldest known member of the bristlebird family. In Australia, songbird fossils are often found as single isolated bones. But Walter's Bristlebird is known from several bones of one individual bird. These fossils are so well preserved that they include some of the tendons used to flex the toes. This has never been seen before in any Australian bird fossil.
Bristlebirds are uniquely Australian songbirds, found only in small populations in the south of the continent. Walter's Bristlebird was found thousands of kilometres away, in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in northwestern Queensland. This shows that bristlebirds were once more widespread in Australia. Fossils like Walter's Bristlebird help us to understand when and how songbirds evolved, and how they became so successful.
Dr Jacqueline Nguyen, Scientific Officer - Ornithology Research, AMRI
- Nguyen, J.M.T. 2019. A new species of bristlebird (Passeriformes, Dasyornithidae) from the early Miocene of Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: e1575838