An artist’s impression of the parrot-like bird, Mopsitta tanta, dating back 55 million years. The fossils indicate that parrots once flew wild over what is now Norway and Denmark.
A team of researchers, including a former postdoctoral colleague of mine, recently described fossils from two Lower Eocene parrot-like birds that were discovered in Denmark. The analysis of the fossils reveals that one of the ancient parrots, named Mopsitta tanta, is the largest fossil parrot found so far and it has the most northerly distribution yet known. Intriguingly, Mopsitta tanta predates the earliest unequivocal European psittacid by 30 million years!
Parrots are birds consisting of roughly 350 species in 85 genera within the order Psittaciformes. They occur throughout most warm and tropical regions at or near the equator. The diversity of South American and Australasian parrots originally suggested that these birds originated on Gondwana. However, the fossil record for parrots is sparse and their evolutionary origin remains a matter of informed speculation.
Two fossil bones were discovered eight years ago by Bent Søe Mikkelsen in a quarry on the isle of Mors in Jutland, Denmark, which is located on the North Sea (see figure 1, below). Mikkelsen is the former director of the Moler Museum where these fossils are now housed. Amazingly, this quarry is mined to produce cat litter!
“As with many fragile bird fossils, it is a wonder that anything remains at all, and all that remains of this early Danish parrot is a single upper wing bone (humerus).” (See plates 1-4, below);
Plates 1-4 Mopsitta tanta gen. et sp. nov.; FU 110 ⁄ 139, holotype from the Lower Eocene Fur Formation, Denmark; digital photographs of right humerus (coated in ammonium chloride to enhance contrast) in 1, caudal, 2, cranial, 3, right lateral and 4, left lateral views [larger view].
“Obviously, we are dealing with a bird that is bereft of life, but the tricky bit is establishing that it was a parrot,” said David Waterhouse, lead author of the paper. But meticulous analysis of the small bone revealed that it is indeed from a parrot.
“This small bone contains characteristic features that show that it is clearly from a member of the parrot family, about the size of a Yellow-crested Cockatoo,” [Cacatua sulphurea], said Waterhouse, who originally identified the bone in 2005, when he was a PhD student at University College Dublin. The 5-6 centimeter bone had lain unidentified in the Moler Museum for several years when he first examined it (See Waterhouse’s drawings below);
The new species has been nicknamed the Danish Blue Parrot in honor of the Monty Python “dead parrot” skit where Michael Palin claimed that a newly purchased “Norwegian Blue Parrot” was not “bleedin’ demised” as his disgruntled customer asserted, but was simply “shagged out following a prolonged squawk.”
This Mopsitta tanta fossil humerus provides support for the hypothesis that modern parrots appeared approximately ten million years after the K/T boundary.
“We have to remember that this was only ten million years after the dinosaurs were wiped out, and some strange things were happening with animal life all over the planet.”
The evidence shows that the Danish Blue parrot existed 55 million years ago, suggesting they lived alongside other contemporary Psittaciforms; the Pseudasturidae and Quercypsittacidae. However, even though this fossil suggests this was a modern parrot, research suggests that the Danish Blue would have looked different from today’s parrots, especially since it probably lacked a parrot’s familiar hooked bill.
This fossil is also the farthest north that any parrot remains have been found, suggesting that parrots originally evolved in the Old World, before moving into the southern tropics of the New World and further speciating.
“It isn’t as unbelievable as you might at first think that a parrot was found so far north,” Waterhouse observed. “When Mopsitta was alive, most of Northern Europe was experiencing a warm period, with a large, shallow tropical lagoon covering much of Germany, southeast England and Denmark.”
Because this fossil humerus raises a host of new questions without answering any of them, it would be most interesting and informative if a tarsometatarsus and/or some cranial fossils could be uncovered in the near future.
Waterhouse, D.M., Lindow, B.E., Zelenkov, N.V., Dyke, G.J. (2008). Two new parrots (Psittaciformes) from the Lower Eocene Fur Formation of Denmark. Palaeontology, 51(3), 575-582. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2008.00777.x