We live in a time when everyone’s favorite flying creatures – birds – are only recognized for pithy sayings about worms or for the deposits they drop on vehicles whose existence is contributing to the birds’ fast and tragic disappearance from our planet. That is why it is worth spending some time delving into recent news about three unusual feathered species: a bird that flew a quarter of the way around the world without stopping; a huge bird that has learned how to self-medicate; and the first proof that dinosaurs with feathers actually flew along with their non-dinosaur non-feathered competitors, the pterosaurs. It’s time to not only recognize but protect our feathered friends – before it is too late.
“Whether this is an accident, whether this bird got lost or whether this is part of a normal pattern of migration for the species, we still don’t know.”
Everyone has a story about someone – always a male, usually a father or husband – who refuses to stop the car on a trip for any reason because he is “making good time” and believes that “when the fuel gauge says ‘E’ we still have plenty of gas.” A tagged bird – a young bar-tailed godwit (gender not known but probably a male) – was tracked taking off from southwest Alaska at the Yuko-Kuskokwim Delta and not stopping until it landed 11 days later at Ansons Bay on the island of Tasmania’s northeastern tip. Birdlife Tasmania convenor Eric Woehler told HuffPost that the 8,435 miles (13,560 km) flight was puzzling because the bird was so young – five months old – and it didn’t seem to follow a normal migration pattern for bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica).
The species is known for distinctive red breeding plumage, long legs, and a long upturned bill, and they breed on Arctic coasts and tundra from Scandinavia to Alaska, then migrate to Australia and New Zealand. Their favorite foods are bristle-worms, small bivalves and crustaceans, but they eat nothing on their long migratory flights -- Woehler estimated the bird lost half its body weight (it probably left weighing about 300 grams, with 5 grams of that being the tracker on its back) on its record-breaking flight. It burns a lot of fuel because – unlike other seabirds such as gulls which spend migratory time gliding - the bar-tailed godwits are active flyers who flap their wings almost constantly. The record setter burned even more than usual because it made a wrong turn on its approach to New Zealand and ended up on the wrong side of Australia – a navigational mistake ornithologists think was because the young bird had no idea where it was headed.
“Great bustards seek out two species of weeds that are also used by humans in traditional medicine. We show that both contain antiprotozoal and nematicidal (ie, worm-killing) compounds, while the second also contains antifungal agents.”
Our next bird is also a record-setter – the great bustard (Otis tarda), which is the heaviest bird species living today that is capable of flight, and also has the greatest size difference between the sexes. Weighing up to 46 pounds (females are much lighter), the great bustard can be found from northern Morocco, South and Central Europe, to Central and East Asia. Believe it or not, Asian great bustards actually migrate south in the winter. But most prefer to stay in one area year-round. However, that is not the subject of a new study on the species in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution – this research looked into claims that the great bustard stays healthy a that great weight by self-medicating, a trait common to humans and appearing in a limited number of other species. Study co-author Dr Azucena Gonzalez-Coloma, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid, explains in a press release that these birds may have a very human-like reason for self-medicating.
“In theory, both sexes of great bustards might benefit from seeking out medicinal plants in the mating season when sexually transmitted diseases are common – while males that use plants with compounds active against diseases might appear more healthy, vigorous, and attractive to females.”
By studying 623 droppings from female and male great bustards, the scientists counted the recognizable remains (tissue from stems, leaves, and flowers) of 90 plant species that grow locally and are known to on the bustards’ menu. In doing so, they found two that dominated their diet -- corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and purple viper’s bugloss (Echium plantagineum). The corn poppies are used in traditional medicine as a pain reliever, sedative, and immune booster, both plants are highly effective at inhibiting or killing protozoa and nematodes in vitro, and the purple viper’s bugloss is also moderately active against fungi. Before you go loading up on corn poppies and purple viper’s bugloss before a night of carousing, the researchers warn that purple viper’s bugloss is toxic to humans if eaten in great quantities, and more study is needed in general on how this actually works for the great bustards.
“Our Confuciusornis reconstruction indicates the earliest evidence of upstroke-enhanced flight, which is very exciting,”
Now that we’ve looked at the longest flyers and the heaviest flyers, let’s look at the first feathered flyers – feathered dinosaurs. A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) went searching for the first positive proof that dinosaurs with feathers – long known to have existed – could actually fly. To do this, researchers at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) used high-tech laser imaging to find of feathered dinosaurs had the same shoulder muscles to power their wings’ upstrokes, and chest muscles to power downstrokes that modern birds have. this evidence has been impossible to find because tissue fossils of feathered dinosaurs are so rare. The scientists managed to find 1,000 fossils of flying feathered dinosaurs that lived in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods in north-eastern China. Using a Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) technique, the researchers recreated the shoulder and chest regions of the animals to study preserved soft tissue flight anatomy and combined this with skeletal reconstructions prove that the dinosaurs could fly. They also included fossils of an early beaked bird, Confuciusornis which lived 125 million years ago, and showed it had the same chest and shoulders suitable for flight.
“Microraptor is a small microraptorine dromaeosaurid with asymmetrical flight feathers on the wings and legs. Functional morphology and aerodynamic analysis through modeling and calculations demonstrates that Microraptor was the first paravian outside of birds (used here as equivalent to Avialae) that had the potential for gliding flight. Recent first-principles modeling shows that Microraptor and another dromaeosaurid, Rahonavis, met the full weight support and climb-out requirements for true flapping flight. Outside of birds, Microraptor and Rahonavis are the only known paravians capable of this feat."
The study identified Microraptors, small four-winged dromaeosaurid dinosaurs, and Rahonavis, a bird-like theropod, as the only known feathered flying dinosaurs. Look for those in the plastic dinosaur section of your favorite toy store if you want your kids to have accurate dinosaur models.
Record-setting migrators, self-mediating birds and flying feathered dinosaurs – some are already gone, the rest are endangered. Are we really content to be heading towards a world where the only birds are the ones we eat?