Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Birds down under

I've been an avid birdwatcher for many years, and have been fortunate enough to travel to some amazingly cool places in search of avifauna.  Besides exploring my own country, I've been to Canada (several times), Belize (twice), Ecuador (twice), Iceland (twice), England (twice), Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Malaysia.

One place I've never been, though, is Australia, which is a shame because it's got some incredible animals.  And despite a pretty well-deserved reputation for having far more than their fair share of wildlife that's actively trying to kill you, most tourists come back from trips to Australia alive and with all their limbs still attached in the right places.

The main reason for Australia's unique ecosystems is that it's been isolated for a very long time.  During the breakup of Pangaea, the northern part (Laurasia, made up of what is now Europe, North America, and most of Asia) separated from the southern part (Gondwanaland, made up of what is now Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and India), something on the order of 180 million years ago.  The other pieces gradually pulled apart as rifting occured, but Australia remained attached to Antarctica until around thirty million years ago.  At that point, the whole thing had a fairly temperate climate, but when the Tasman Gateway opened up during the Oligocene Period, it allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, isolating and cooling Antarctica and resulting in the extinction of nearly all of its native species.  Australia, now separate, began to drift northward, gradually warming as it went, and carrying with it a completely unique suite of animals and plants.

The reason all this comes up is a sharp-eyed Australian loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who sent me a link to a news story about a recent discovery by a dedicated amateur fossil hunter and birdwatcher, Melissa Lowery, who was looking for fossils on the Bass Coast of Victoria and stumbled upon something extraordinary -- some 125 million year old bird footprints.

Lowery's bird footprints [Image by photographer Rob French, Museums Victoria]

At that point, the separation of Australia and Antarctica was some 65 million years in the future, the sauropod dinosaurs were still the dominant animal group, and Victoria itself was somewhere near the South Pole.  Lowery's find led to a full-scale scientific investigation of the area, and uncovered a great many more bird tracks, including some with ten-centimeter-long toes.  Also in the area were the footprints of dozens of kinds of non-avian dinosaurs.

"Most of the bird tracks and body fossils dating back to the Early Cretaceous are from the Northern Hemisphere, particularly from Asia," said Anthony Martin, of Emory University, who led the study.  "Our discovery shows that there were many birds, and a variety of them, near the South Pole about 125 million years ago."

Of course, being a birdwatcher, I'm intensely curious as to what these birds looked like, but there's only so much you can tell from a footprint, or even fossilized bones.  It's simultaneously intriguing and frustrating to think about the fact that these animals -- and all the other animals and plants that lived alongside them -- had every bit of the diversity, all the curious and wonderful and beautiful adaptations and behaviors, that our modern wildlife does.

Imagine what it would be like to transport yourself back to Australia in the early Cretaceous, and witness all of that with your own eyes and ears.  (With, of course, a guarantee of coming back alive and with all your limbs still attached in the right places.  Back then, Australia was a rougher place than it is now.)

So thanks to the reader who sent me the link -- it's renewed my desire to visit Australia.  If I can't see the amazing birds they had 125 million years ago, at least I can have a look through my binoculars at some of the ones they have today.


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