Where have all the dinosaurs gone...

Pelagornithidae birds evolved around the time that the dinosaurs disappeared from the planet, the end of the Cretaceous period approximately 65 to 64 million years ago. Tantalising facts of the fossil record that lead many scientists to theorise that the dinosaurs are still with us today. Here we are discussing a branch of the avian tree, a remarkable evolutionary pelagic bird, with strange anatomical features. Unlike Archaeopteryx of the Mesozoic era, our toothless bird, pseudo tooth or false toothed bird of the Pelagornithidae family did not have what might be referred to as proper teeth, dentin sleaved, serrated, sabre sharp or otherwise, but structures of bone known as 'Volkmann canals'. These premaxillary and mandibular beak bone vessels were raised upon the outer rim of each beak and looked very much like triangular teeth. In fact they were fragile hollow vascular bone structures, at an atomic cortical level these were channels that may have carried blood or contained spongy bone material known as cancellous bone. These early beginnings of pseudo teeth were little use for the dissection of the birds meal, however they were evolved aids for gripping slippery prey, like modern day albatrosses the pseudo tooth bird would skim over the surface of the ocean picking its prey from the surface, sliding its beak under the surface foam to pluck out soft bodied marine dwellers such as cephalopods and fishes.

 

flying reptiles

 

The range of the pseudo tooths was global and they attained apex predator position over the surface of the oceans during their presence in the Cenozoic era, approximately 66 to 5 million years ago. At the start of the Paleocene 66 m.y.a. the pseudo tooth birds were about the size of an adult albatross of today, as the epochs progressed their size increased. By the Paleocene - Eocene period boundary of Morocco, 56 m.y.a. the smallest pseudotooh bird, Odontoptila inexpectata was around 5ft/1.5m wingspan. By the end of the Neogene period boundary 2.6 m.y.a. (the end of Pliocene epoch), the pseudo tooth bird had evolved to enormous sizes, some attaining a 20ft/6m wingspan. Over a 50 million year span the Pelagornithidae pseudo tooth birds had attained great size and seem to have mirrored the size development of the dinosaurs which started to evolve approximately 200 million years before their reign of the air above the oceans of the Cenozoic era 66 m.y.a. to today.

Another tantalising thought is that the enigmatic Pelagornithidae birds narrowly missed early mans presence on earth, Homo habilis 2.6 million years, Pelagornithidae birds show up in the fossil record from the Paleocene epoch (Paleogene period 66 to 23 m.y.a.), to the end of the Pliocene epoch (5.3 to 2.6 m.y.a.) a reign of about 50 million years within these time periods. In the Paleocene fossils have been found of a size of the great Albatross around 3.5 metres wingspans. It is estimated the largest of the Pelagornithidae attained a size of about 5 to 6 metres, with the ability to fly rather than soar, that must have been quite a sight, a bird the size of a small aircraft flapping great wings with beaks full of triangular boney teeth blotting out the sun as it soared downward scooping its victim from the sea.

The bones of the pseudo tooth were fragile, lightweight, thin walled and so this made diving a none option for the toothless bird. The anatomical boney features meant the pseudo tooth bird could be easily injured if diving into seas. At one time science believed Pterosaurs only had the ability to soar rather than fly. Flight as we know it today in our avian friends. The latest research is leading away from these earlier theories of Pterosaurs, as new discoveries and established fossil remains are once again analysed afresh, it is becoming apparent that Pterosaurs had the anatomical ability to fly as well as soar. So too the great sized Pelagornithidae toothless birds would have dominated the ocean scene, ranging over the whole planet in great numbers, enormous wings beating the air to heights suitable for soaring great distances to new hunting grounds, populating the oceans of prehistory.

 

Odontopteryx Jaw

 

The prehistoric pseudo tooth pelagic bird (Pelagic a bird that spends a significant portion of its life on the wing at sea, seldom making landfall except only to breed and rear young), had therefore a worldwide range, found from South America to North Africa, Europe to Australasia. However their remains are very scarce in the fossil record, this is perhaps due to their lightweight frame, their anatomy of thin walled bones which have been easily dispersed, broken down and scattered before having the neccessary time to fossilise successfully in the sediments of time.

Pelagornithidae extinction is an unsolved mystery and may ever stay so, as with so much fossil record data it is difficult to pin point exactly what may have caused any extinction. In this case the toothless birds are now exception, theorists summarise that like other seabeds the evolutional radiation of the toothless birds matches the cetaceans (whales), and pinnipeds (seals), of the Pliocene epoch, about the time these pelagic birds leave the fossil record.

Believing competitive food source pressure from the aforementioned eventually put pay to the pseudo tooth birds out competing under, on the water and in coastal regions, pinnipeds competing on shoreline nesting grounds the toothless birds occupied. However the author would hedge with other theories of global temperature and eco systems changes. Around this period Antarctica became established, tectonic movement affected currents and waterways and some seas vanished as land formed. As these movements affected a negative way, they also counter balanced in a positive way, new coastal zones, cliffs, would have made high and secure nesting grounds inaccessible by pinnipeds for instance. Perhaps the natural evolutions of life is more likely yet less dramatic extinction theory. The toothless birds survived for about 10 million years along with the great whales of that time, which weakens the direct competition theory between Pelagornithidae pseudo tooth birds and cetaceans or pinnipeds. A tantalising mystery, perhaps one day we may have accumulated enough data to be more sure, until then once again the enigmatic fossils of pseudo tooth birds keep their beaks uncharacteristically and firmly sealed and quite.

We The Fossil Store have now available in our fossil catalogue the fossil bones and jaws of these prehistoric pseudo toothless birds. The fossil remains are from the classic fossil bed location 120km south east of Casablanca in the Middle Atlas of Morocco. Here one of the largest industries of Morocco is the production of phosphates. This requires the destruction of vast quantities of the phosphate layers and in these layers are the fossil birds of the Paleogene and Neogene periods. As the machinery rolls forward it exhumes thousands of tons of phosphates clays, marls and limestones which are in bands or layers of between 1m to 3m in thickness and range from the Cretaceous period (around 70 m.y.a.), Eocene period (50 m.y.a.). In the area near to Khouribga and are also found the Paleogene layers containing the pelagic toothless birds. The rock is used for the production of cement, the fossil bones are dredged up as a by product and if not foraged immediately by the indigenous population of fossil gatherers become crushed, lost forever in the automated machinery along with all other phosphate material.

In our catalogue are several fossil specimens of the genus of toothless bird, all found several years ago in the phosphate layers of Benguerir, Oulad Abdoun Basin, Morocco, North Africa. Here then is an opportunity to gain a partial skeleton or acquire a single piece a an extremely fascinating and highly important fossil specimen which is an ever decreasing resource. Welcome to our world of fossil birds, enjoy the experience of viewing or owning a piece of prehistory of our living planet.