Sunday, January 24, 2021

The evolution of an extinct bird

This slightly capybaraesque creature looks about how I feel most days this month: Tired, shaggy, stressed and just plain done with all the nonsense. If its birdlike feet could take it somewhere quiet, serene and featuring an abundance of chocolate cake, I'm sure it would go. 

Alas, its feet are affixed firmly to that ground, forever, and ever, and ever.

It's one of the shockingly unrealistic "dinosaurs" at Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, a roadside tourist attraction that's been delighting travelers since 1963. Of course, you can't blame the park's creators for any historical inaccuracies. Our understanding of what dinosaurs and birds of yore looked and acted like has changed greatly, thanks to the ongoing scientific research of the past six decades. 

In fact, our understanding has changed so much that diatryma, the creature pictured on this postcard, is no longer considered to be part of a distinct genus. 

But it still was as of this postcard, which states that diatryma is "an ancient member of the bird family. It has underdeveloped wings so it could not fly. Its legs were very powerful for running and had a very strong beak. It was a meat eater much as our hawks and eagles of today."

The "meat eater" part has changed, too. This bird is actually in the extinct genus Gastornis, and here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:
"Gastornis is an extinct genus of large flightless birds that lived during the late Paleocene and Eocene epochs of the Cenozoic era. The genus is currently thought to contain three or four distinct species, known from incomplete fossil remains, found in western-central Europe (England, Belgium, France and Germany). More complete specimens are known from a fourth, North American species, which had previously been classified in the distinct genus Diatryma. Many scientists now consider Diatryma to be so similar to the other species of Gastornis that it should also be included in that genus. A fifth species, also previously classified in its own genus, is known from China.

'"Gastornis species were very large birds, and have traditionally been considered to be predators of small mammals. However, several lines of evidence, including the lack of hooked claws in known Gastornis footprints and studies of their beak structure have caused scientists to reinterpret these birds as herbivores that probably fed on tough plant material and seeds."
And here's a better estimation now of what Gastornis looked like, which is a far cry from the Dinosaur Land bird on this postcard:

Tim Bertelink, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Some other information about this old postcard:
  • The photo was taken by Larry Witt
  • The postcard was made by Dexter Press of West Nyack, New York
  • The stamp box indicates that it's a Dexter Supreme 
  • It was published by A.J. Simonpietri Jr. of Front Royal, Virginia
  • It is copyright 1969

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