Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Oct 2007 Auk: A Fossil Tody

A tody (Alcediniformes: Todidae) from the early Oligocene of Germany.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThis article describes a partial skeleton (missing the skull and one wing) of a tody, Paleotodus itardiensis, from 32 million years ago in Germany. Todies are Coraciiformes (sometimes split down to Alcediniformes, as in this paper), meaning they are burrow-digging relatives to Kingfishers, Bee-eaters, Motmots, and Rollers. They are brightly colored little green sprites (or 'little farters' as per the Cuban name) that are restricted in modern times to the Caribbean. Check out the fossil (click to enlarge):

(Source: Mayr and Knopf 2007)

I find this paper interesting for two reasons:

1) The fact that there were todies in Europe. Modern todies are restricted to the Carribean, but fossil todies have been found previously in Wyoming and France from about 30 mya. The previous European records are known from fragments of leg bones, so this find significantly increases our knowledge of these curious ancient stem-group todies. The Oligocene was the time of the splitting of the Atlantic, so the authors believe it is likely that the ocean split paleotodies into two groups, with the European lineage going extinct. This pattern is also seen in Motmots, also restricted to the new world with a fossil from Europe.

2) The fact that we can identify bird bones to family. Reading through the technical details, paleo-ornithologists have considerable knowledge of the minutiae of bird bones. It puts birder’s knowledge of plumage details to shame. Just look at these comparisons (click to enlarge):

(Source: Mayr and Knopf 2007)

The fossil record is a valuable tool relating to many of the research areas I am interested in: fossil calibration of molecular clocks, biogeographic patterns, etc. It is through the hard work of people like Mayr and Knopf that this record is built.


Gerald Mayr and Charles W. Knopf. 2007. A tody (Alcediniformes: Todidae) from the early Oligocene of Germany. The Auk Vol. 124 No. 4 October 2007. 1294-1304.

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