CM – 25 million year old eagles ruled the roost in Australia

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September 27, 2021

by Taylor & Francis

A 25 million year old eagle fossil found in South Australia contributes to the long evolutionary history of birds of prey in Australia.

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Flinders University paleontologists have unearthed Australia’s oldest eagle fossils on a remote cattle ranch in the outback and described a new species of fossil that lived during the late Oligocene. This species, named Archaehierax sylvestris, is one of the oldest eagle-like birds of prey in the world.

« This species was slightly smaller and slimmer than the wedge-tailed eagle, but it is the largest eagle known in Australia from that period, » says Ph.D. . from Flinders University. Candidate Ellen Mather, lead author of the new article published in the peer-reviewed journal Historical Biology.

« The foot span was nearly six inches, which would have allowed him to grab large prey. The largest marsupial predators were closed about the size of a small dog or a large cat at that time, so Archaehierax certainly ruled the quarters. « 

 » Since eagles are at the top of the food chain, they are always in small numbers – and therefore will rarely preserved as fossils, « says co-author Associate Professor Trevor Worthy.

 » It’s rare to find even a bone from a fossil eagle. Having most of the skeleton is pretty exciting, especially when you consider how old it is. « 

The remains of Archaehierax were found on the barren shores of a dry lake (known as Lake Pinpa) in a desolate sandy desert habitat during ongoing Flinders University research into a lost ecosystem, when the interior of Australia was covered with trees and green forests.

However, life in forests poses some challenges for a flying animal. How could Archaehierax avoid collisions with trees and branches while hunting?

« The fossil bones show that Archaehierax’s wings (pron.ah-kay-hi-rax) were short for its size, similar to the species today of forest-dwelling eagles. His legs, on the other hand, were relatively long and would have given way.  » a considerable range, « says Ms. Mather.

 » The combination of these characteristics suggests that Archaehierax was an agile but not particularly fast flier and was most likely an ambush hunter.

Archaehierax would have koalas, possums and other animals hunted in trees that surround a huge shallow lake where waterfowl, cormorants and flamingos were abundant.

Of all the species known here, Archaehierax is one of the best preserved; the fossil partial skeleton consists of 63 bones.

« I have studied this system for many years now and this is the most exquisite fossil we have found so far, » says Associate Professor Trevor Worthy.

« The completeness of the Archaehierax skeleton has enabled us to determine where it fits in the eagle family tree. It shows a number of features that are not found in modern falcons and eagles, « explains Mather.

 » We found that Archaehierax did not have any r belonged to living genera or families. It appears to have been a branch of the eagle family in its own right, « she says.

 » It is unlikely to be a direct ancestor of any species living today.  »

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