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A Quack in Time

In 1993, Argentinian scientists exploring Vega Island—“a small island to the northwest of James Ross Island, on the Antarctic Peninsula,” according to Wikipedia—found what turned-out-to-be the fossil of Vegavis iaai, a very special member of the anseriform order of birds, which includes such waterfowl as ducks, geese, and swans.

Two things make Vegavis iaai very special.

First: a U.S. paleontologist studying the fossil ten years later found its syrinx, the organ that only (though not all) birds have and that allows them to produce a remarkable range of sounds—from the delicate music of songbirds to the honking of geese.

And second: it’s the fossilized remains of a bird that lived over 65 million years ago.

Granted, other bird species predate Vegavis iaai, including Archaeopteryx (which lived 150 million years ago) and Aurornis xui, the so-called Dawn bird (which lived 160 million years ago). But scientists have never found a syrinx this ancient before. As a New York Times article points out:

The syrinx is hard to find in ancient bird specimens because it is made of calcified cartilage that does not typically fossilize well. Only a handful that are older than a few million years old have ever been found. It took nearly two decades to uncover the syrinx in this specimen, and [paleontologist] Dr. Clarke said she did not set out to discover it.

Its discovery not only “suggests that the ancient bird ‘honked’ and ‘quacked’ like today’s geese and ducks,” as Nicholas St. Fleur indicates in his New York Times article, but also, as indicated in Wikipedia, “demonstrates that the major groups of bird alive today had already diversified in the Cretaceous” and offers “the first definitive physical proof that representatives of some of the groups of modern birds lived in the Mesozoic.” In addition, this discovery illustrates how long birds have had the ability to vocalize, suggesting that we’ve only begun to discover the extensive evolutionary history of this behavior and the range of its capabilities.

That researchers found the fossil of this ancient bird in the Antarctic offers other lessons, as well. Species like Vegavis iaai could survive in the Antarctic only because 65 million years ago, the then ice-free continent enjoyed a near-tropical climate with temperatures in the 60° range. Millions of years of volcanic activity had released tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In fact, by approximately 50 million years ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached “anywhere between 990 to ‘a couple of thousand’ parts per million.”

Today, 150 years of burning fossil fuels have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 400 parts per million worldwide. According to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, “CO2 levels have not surpassed 300 ppm in 800,000 years.” Antarctic ice is already melting at a prodigious pace. Our continued dependence on fossil fuels and our penchant for using deforestation to create additional agricultural acreage and as a prelude to the extraction of more coal, oil, and natural gas will almost certainly allow carbon dioxide levels to increase at an even faster pace in the years to come.

Maybe the ducks and geese will like it if tropical rainforests return to Antarctica once again. But how will other ecosystems around the world react to even higher CO2 levels than we’re experiencing today? During the Cretaceous Era, ecosystems and their inhabitants (flora and fauna) had millions of years to evolve and adapt. Will the ecosystems we depend on have the time to do so? In mere decades? Which crops will survive? Will soaring temperatures increase desertification? How many fresh water aquifers will rising seas contaminate with salt water? How much potable water will the earth’s population have to drink? Extreme heat has already killed people in India and Australia. Will extreme heat also present a problem in the American Southwest? Elsewhere?

You can read more about Vegavis iaai in the following articles:

Vegavis iaai, Fossil Bird
Vegavis iaai
Oldest known squawk box suggests dinosaurs likely did not sing
The Oldest Bird Voice Box Ever Found
Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic

Other related resources:
Early Bird Beat Archaeopteryx to Worm by 10m Years
Ancient bird Archaeopteryx’s Feathery Details Revealed by Fossil
Antarctica was home to a rainforest some 50 million years ago
First time in 800,000 years: April’s CO2 levels above 400 ppm