Today, Australia has no vultures, but in the Pleistocene Epoch it did. Researchers have reclassified fossil remains and identified Australia’s first fossil vulture. The bird, which probably stood around one metre tall, has been named Cryptogyps lacertosus. The scientific name translates as “powerful hidden vulture”, reflecting the fact that its fossils had been hiding in plain sight for more than a hundred years.

Vulture Cryptogyps compared to Aquila audax.
A silhouette of the newly described Australian vulture Cryptogyps lacertosus which lived in Australia until around 50,000 years ago. C. lacertosus (right) is compared to Aquila audax, the Wedge-tailed eagle which is Australia’s largest extant bird of prey. Wedge-tailed eagles often scavenge carcasses and are frequently observed feeding on kangaroo corpses and other animals killed in roadside collisions. The Wedge-tailed eagle is filling the ecological niche once filled by the extinct C. lacertosus. Picture credit: Ellen Mather, Flinders University Palaeontology Lab with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur.

Fossil Vulture Hiding in Plain Sight

Researchers from Flinders University and the South Australian Museum writing in the academic journal “Zootaxa” have reassessed fossil material first described by the English ornithologist Charles Walter de Vis in 1905 and named as “Taphaetus lacertosus”. The ornithologist thought the partial humerus and fragmentary skull bones found in north-eastern South Australia represented an ancient eagle and he named the bird “powerful grave eagle”.

The scientists were able to study fossils from the Wellington Caves of New South Wales and material recovered from the Nullarbor Plain of Western Australia including a lower leg bone (tarsometatarsus), which when compared to the lower leg bones of living birds of prey, it became clear that the fossil tarsometatarsus did not support the musculature required to despatch prey.

Eagle lower leg bone compared to fossil vulture.
Comparisons of the tarsometatarsi of wedge-tailed eagle (lower right) and Cryptogyps (lower left), with position of tarsometatarsi shown in the leg (centre, based on illustration by Jollie, 1977). Picture credit: Dr Ellen Mather (Flinders University Palaeontology Lab.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Ellen Mather (Flinders University) commented:

“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 it was not a hawk or an eagle.”

A Phylogenetic Analysis

A phylogenetic analysis placed C. lacertosus within the subfamily Aegypiinae, making it an Old World Vulture related to extant birds found in Africa, Asia and Europe. The identification of Cryptogyps lacertosus as an Old World Vulture significantly expands the palaeogeographical range of the Old World vultures, previously unknown in Australia and indeed, there are no vultures in Australia today.

Given the megafauna that existed on the continent until very recently, giant kangaroos, flightless thunder birds, huge wombats such as Diprotodon and the enormous monitor lizard Megalania, the presence of vultures in the Pleistocene ecosystem had been predicted.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from Flinders University in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “A new look at an old Australian raptor places “Taphaetus” lacertosus de Vis 1905 in the Old World vultures (Accipitridae: Aegypiinae)” by Ellen K. Mather, Michael S. Y. Lee and Trevor H. Worthy published in Zootaxa.

Share This!Pin on Pinterest0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0