Thursday, 3 May 2012

A New Species Of Ancient Crane

The fossil footprints of Uvaichnites riojana
Birds first evolved some 150 million years ago. The fossils of early avians are well known across Eurasia, but the species are not especially diverse. It was only when their reptilian ancestors, the dinosaurs, became extinct that birds flourished, quickly becoming the dominant animal group on the planet.

They grew to great sizes, with some flightless forms reaching heights of three metres.

These bizarre creatures were predatory, with powerful legs and razor-sharp bills. Yet they were not the only birds. The feathered descendants of the dinosaurs became incredibly diverse after the K-T extinction event. Now a fossil discovery from the La Rioja region of Northern Spain adds to the ranks. The specimens were found in slabs of sandstone excavated from a renovated cellar in the town of Cenicero.

There were 14 sections of rock with a vast variety of fossil footprints on them, suggesting that the sand stones were laid down in a shallow body of flat water, and dated to 25 million years old. Analysis by Pelix Perex Lorente from La Rioja University revealed them to come from a previously unknown species of crane. The size of the middle toe, 12 centimetres, suggests that this crane was rather large. It was named Uvaichnites riojana,

To date they are the oldest traces of Spanish cranes in the fossil record. What is rather interesting is its size. Most evolutionary firsts are quite small. This anomaly suggests that the ancestors of the cranes were quite successful. This study is incredible in that we have been able to name a completely new species using no more than its footprints. It shows just how far palaeontology has come since the knee joint of a species of giant dinosaur was identified as scrotum humanum.