Prehistoric Bird with Club-like Wings

Nature is full of examples of different types of organism that develop the same biological or anatomical characteristics as an adaptation to their environments.  For example, Ichthyosaurs (and now possibly Mosasaurs), with their tail-flukes that resemble those of dolphins.  The flying squirrel and the flying lizard, both accomplished gliders but not closely related.

Just occasionally, a fossil is found that throws up something so unusual and uncharacteristic that scientists are perplexed as to what their discovery could mean.  They have no benchmarks to work with.

One such instance of this has been reported in the scientific journal “The Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biology”.  A paper has just been published on the fossilised remains of a type of Ibis from the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

This extinct, flightless bird known only from Jamaica, apparently evolved banana-shaped clubs from its wings.  What these “clubs” were actually for remains open to speculation, but researchers have concluded that they may have been used in intraspecific conflicts, perhaps fights over nesting sites or mates.

This strange bird, was roughly the size of a chicken, it has been scientifically described as Xenicibis xympithecus.  The genus Xenicibis had been first described in 1977 and a number of bones ascribed to it from several Caribbean islands.  However, this new study has been based on much more complete remains found in caves sited at the southern end of Jamaica.  Evidence suggests that this bird was alive as recently as 10,000 years ago, and may have been driven to existence by man, the fate of so many flightless birds, the Dodo for example.

Commenting on this strange creature, researcher Nicholas Longrich, a vertebrate palaeontologist at Yale University stated:

“There is just nothing else out there like this in any other vertebrate.  Usually evolution tends to hit on the same designs over and over, and this is just something completely different, so as a biologist it’s sort of cool to find something and be able to say: Wow!  I haven’t seen that one before.”

An Illustration of X. xympithecus

Picture Credit: Nicholas Longrich/Yale University

The strangely distorted hands had short, block-like fingers, long palm bones, thicker than the bird’s femur and wrist joints that allowed the wings to swing rapidly back and forth like flails or clubs.

Longrich added:

“I sometimes compare these things to nunchucks, which I guess would make this a ninja bird, although perhaps a better analogy would be a pair of baseball bats – they were actively swung rather than moving passively like a flail.”

Evidence of broken wings in the fossil record, suggest these clubs were potent weapons in intraspecific combats.

At first, scientists thought that this was a deformity but as more fossils were found showing the same anatomical configuration it became clear that the club-like wings were an adaptation.  Their use as weapons to fight off predators has not been ruled out, as it seems that both males and females possessed these strange wings.

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