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Not an Eagle: Misidentified Bird Is Australia's First Fossil Vulture

Carrion my wayward bird.

Scientists holds a lower leg bone of a vulture in one hand and the fossil leg bone of a vulture in the other while leaning on a table in a lab.
Paleontologist Ellen Mather of Flinders University holds up the leg bone of an African vulture and the fossil leg bone of Cryptogyps lacertosus.
Flinders University

Australia has all sorts of amazing animals, but it doesn't have any vultures. At least not in modern times. A team of researchers has written a new chapter in the continent's history of birds by correcting a misidentification that had lingered for more than 100 years.

Back in 1905, ornithologist Charles Walter de Vis described a bird fossil as an eagle, naming it Taphaetus lacertosus (powerful grave eagle). Paleontologists from Flinders University and the South Australian Museum took a fresh look at the fossil remains and discovered it was actually a vulture, not a bird of prey. It now has a new name: Cryptogyps lacertosus (powerful hidden vulture).

This chart compares the silhouettes and leg bones of the wedge-tailed eagle (left) and the extinct fossil vulture (right).

Artwork and photography by Ellen Mather, Flinders University Palaeontology Lab

The team published a paper on the extinct bird in the journal Zootaxa this week. More recently recognized fossil fragments helped point the way to a correct identification. Flinders calls it "Australia's first fossil vulture."

"We compared the fossil material to birds of prey from around the world, and it became clear right away that this bird was not adapted to being a hunter, and so was not a hawk or an eagle," said study lead author Ellen Mather in a Flinders University statement on Tuesday. "The features of the lower leg bone are too underdeveloped to support the musculature needed for killing prey."

The vulture lived between 500,000 and 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, at a time when megafauna would've roamed the landscape. Those large mammals would've left behind sizable carcasses when they died, which would've kept the carrion-eating vultures plenty busy. 

Mather suggests the extinction of Cryptogyps lacertosus could've had a big impact: "Vultures play a very important role in ecosystems by accelerating the consumption of carcasses and reducing the spread of diseases. The loss of Cryptogyps could have caused a drastic upheaval in ecosystem function for a very long time as other species scrambled to fill in its niche."