Oldest fossil tropicbird found in Waipara, North Canterbury
Researchers from Canterbury Museum and Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, have discovered near Waipara/North
Canterbury (on New Zealand’s South Island), what is probably the oldest example of a relative of today’s tropicbirds.
The fossil bones were found by an amateur palaeontologist, Leigh Love, in the Waipara Greensand, in strata that are
about 60 million years old. Mr Love made headlines last year when a fossil he found nearby was recognised by the same
team as belonging to an unknown group of flying seabirds and was named Australornis lovei.
Today tropicbirds inhabit the warm waters of the tropical and sub-tropical oceans. The red-tailed tropicbird breeds in
New Zealand only in the Kermadec Islands, ranging south to Northland and occasionally further south in the summer. This
fossil shows that in the tropical early Paleocene period – just after the event that caused the extinction of dinosaurs
- tropicbirds inhabited the waters surrounding the whole of Zealandia (the ancient sub-continent New Zealand was once
Until the discovery of this fossil, all other reported fossil tropicbirds finds were in the northern hemisphere and it
had been assumed that tropicbirds had spread from Laurasia, the northern supercontinent neighbour of Gondwana.
“The new fossil is an exciting find as it helps our understanding of how tropicbirds evolved. This fossil can be
directly linked to fossil finds of previously unknown origins: the first from the late Cretaceous period (about 70
million years ago) which was found in New Jersey, USA and several fossils from the late Paleocene period (about 58
million years ago) found in Morocco and central Asia,” says Dr Paul Scofield, Senior Curator Natural History at
Canterbury Museum and Adjunct Professor of Paleontology at the University of Canterbury, a co-author of the study.
Dr Gerald Mayr, Curator of Birds at Senckenberg Museum says: “The discovery of this fragmentary fossil give us the
earliest insight into the evolution of one of the most enigmatic lineages of seabirds”.
Dr Scofield and Dr Mayr have published their research findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology