Friday, May 16, 2008

For Doug: 55 Million Year Old Parrot

Palaeontologists have discovered fossil remains in Scandinavia of parrots dating back 55 million years. Reported May 14 in the journal Palaeontology, the fossils indicate that parrots once flew wild over what is now Norway and Denmark.

Parrots today live only in the tropics and southern hemisphere, but this new research suggests that they first evolved in the North, much earlier than had been thought.

The fossil parrot was discovered on the Isle of Mors in the northwest of Denmark – far from where you’d normally expect to find a parrot. It’s a new species, officially named 'Mopsitta tanta'. However, already its nick-name is the ‘Danish Blue Parrot’, a term derived from a famous comedy sketch about a 'Norwegian Blue Parrot' in the 1970s BBC television programme ‘Monty Python’.

The Scandinavian connection makes links to Monty Python’s notoriously demised bird irresistible, but the parallels go further. The famous sketch revolves around establishing that a bird purchased by John Cleese is a dead parrot, and in dealing with these fossils, palaeontologists were faced with the same problem.

As Dr David Waterhouse, lead author of the paper, explains: “Obviously, we are dealing with a bird that is bereft of life, but the tricky bit is establishing that it was a parrot. As with many fragile bird fossils, it is a wonder that anything remains at all, and all that remains of this early Danish parrot is a single upper wing bone (humerus). But, this small bone contains characteristic features that show that it is clearly from a member of the parrot family, about the size of a Yellow-crested Cockatoo.”

ok, so it's established in stone that paleo types are geeks too. Monty Python?


Anonymous said...

As a parrot fan, I can only consider this interesting. I do wonder wether the picture isn't too much off though. It looks like Galahs given a different colour and a slightly less curved bill. Surely Mopsitta wasn't the size of a Galah? At least I think all other Palaeogene European parrots were around the size of a budgerigar.

Anyway, thanks for highlighting this discovery!

Anonymous said...

We've known for a while that parrots are an oldish group -- the anatomy suggested so, and the molecules supported this. So this isn't a surprise.

The eyebrow-raising bit is the location; all parrot species today (with one, recently extinct exception) are tropical. And even though Denmark was /much/ warmer back in the Eocene, it wasn't tropical.

So, cool.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Doug M., you are rather wrong.

It is true that the majority of parrots live in tropical climes, but there are plenty of species that live in subtropical or in temperate areas and a few even face snow and frost on a regular basis.
For example, the Antipodes Parrot (Cynoramphus unicolor) lives on small Antipode Island which has no trees....and lies in the subantarctic zone.

Therefore, parrots could probably easily have lived in a subtropical Europe. In fact, it's more surprising that there aren't any parrots native to Europe anymore. In any case, escapes and ferals can do quite well in urbanised Europe nowadays. Just ask any English, German, Belgian or Dutch person familiar with Ringneck Parrakeets.