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A restoration of Sylviornis. From Worthy et al., 2016.

Paleo Profile: New Caledonia’s Giant Fowl

Life gets weird on islands. Some species, such as elephants, shrink over time, while forms of life that are tiny on the mainland expand to unheard of sizes. Among the best examples of this Island Rule—which is really more of an Island Puzzle—are birds. Over and over again, islands have hosted populations of ground-dwelling, supersized birds, such as one hefty fowl that strutted around New Caledonia.

François Poplin named the bird Sylviornis neocaledoniae in 1980. Exactly what sort of avian it was, however, has been in dispute ever since then. Poplin considered the helmet-headed bird to be related to cassowaries and emus, while other experts suggested that Sylviornis was much closer to turkey-like megapodes. Then further analysis of the skull led other avian experts to put Sylviornis in its own special lineage, the Sylviornithidae, asserting that the turkey-like features of the birds bones were a case of convergence.

In order to sort through this tangle, paleontologist Trevor Worthy and colleagues had a look at about 600 bones of the bird’s body. What they found supported some earlier suggestions about where the bird nested in the greater avian family tree – Sylviornis was a stem galliform, or a relatively archaic member of the group that contains turkeys, pheasants, and chickens. And this might rule out Sylviornis as the answer to a New Caledonian mystery.

Strange earthen mounds on New Caledonia were thought to be the nests of the massive Sylviornis. But this connection relied on the idea that the big bird was a megapode, as these birds characteristically deposit warm their eggs in holes or little hillocks of soil to gain warmth from rotting vegetation, the earth, or some other outside source. Now that Worthy and coauthors have pushed Sylviornis further away from the megapodes, the idea that the mystery mounds were made by Sylviornis now seems less likely. The anatomy of the bird’s feet, the researchers conclude, was at best suited to scratching at the dirt as if it were a supersized chicken. Perhaps, as paleontologists scratch at the soil themselves, they’ll uncover more clues about the life and times of this long-lost fowl.

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Some of the Sylviornis long bones examined in the study. From Worthy et al., 2016.

Fossil Facts

Name: Sylviornis neocaledoniae

Age: Over 5,500 years ago until about 3,000 years ago.

Where in the world?: New Caledonia

What sort of critter?: A bird related to landfowl like turkeys and pheasant.

Size: Over two and a half feet tall and more than 60 pounds.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: Thousands of individual elements from the skeletons of multiple individuals.


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