In 2009, an amateur bone collector from New Zealand uncovered an unidentifiable fossil. As was the usual practice for unidentifiable bones, Leigh Love handed his find over to staff at the Canterbury Museum and continued his archaeological exploits. Before the fossil could be examined, New Zealand was rocked by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, which put a hold on research and gave the bones a few years to settle into their new home. Recently, a research duo finally got around to taking a closer look at the find … and it turned out to be a pretty significant one.

The fossil belongs to a previously undescribed species believed to be one of the oldest flying seabirds in the world. Dr Paul Scofield, from the Canterbury Museum, and Dr Gerald Mayr, from the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, examined the fossil and published their findings this week in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

They have dubbed the new species Australornis lovei (the name is, of course, a little hat-tip to its discoverer Leigh Love). So just how old is the new seabird? The estimations suggest that it lived between 60.5 and 61.6 million years ago. To put that into perspective, that's shortly after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, placing the fossil find in a "very significant era", according to Scofield.

2014 01 29 Australornis Lovei Artists Impression Lr
This is an artist’s impression of Australornis lovei. Image: Derek Onley. Source: Sci News

The world looked a little different in the era of Australornis lovei. Antarctica and Australia were breaking apart from southerly supercontinent Gondwana and the Antarctic Peninsula was much closer to New Zealand (which explains why many of the bird fossils from this era found in the area are of the order Sphenisciformes – that's 'penguins' to the taxonomically disinclined).

According to the description offered by Scofield and Mayr, the species would have been about the size of a pied shag, and the fossil would have formed in the warm waters of a sea off the coast of Zealandia (the continental fragment on which New Zealand sits). Australornis lovei would have existed at the same time as the world's oldest penguin species, Waimanu manneringi.

The fossil provides interesting insight into ancient avian life and is "not just significant for New Zealand, it's also significant for our understanding of the evolution of birds worldwide," Scofield points out.

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