Volunteers find bones of new species of extinct heron at Florida fossil site

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  • Two volunteers assisting researchers of the Florida Museum of Natural History have found bones that belong to a previously undescribed species of extinct heron, according to a new study.
  • The Montbrook site, a large fossil excavation site located a 45-minute drive south of Gainesville, Florida, where the volunteers were working, is estimated to be 5 million to 5.5 million years old.
  • Researchers have named the now-extinct heron species Taphophoyx hodgei or Hodge’s tiger heron, after property owner Eddie Hodge, who contacted the Florida Museum of Natural History and allowed them to excavate the site after his granddaughter discovered fossils there in 2015.
  • Based on their examination of the bones, the researchers say the extinct species is likely closely related to today’s tiger herons (Tigrisoma spp.), which live in Mexico and Central and South America.

In November 2017, two volunteers assisting researchers of the Florida Museum of Natural History dig through a large excavation site in North Florida unearthed the bones of a bird. Those bones, it turned out, belong to a previously undescribed species of extinct heron, according to a new study.

The volunteers, Toni-Ann Benjamin and Sharon Shears, were helping out at the Montbrook site, a large excavation site located on private property near the town of Williston, a 45-minute drive south of Gainesville, Florida. Estimated to be 5 million to 5.5 million years old, Montbrook has previously yielded fossils of bony fish, freshwater turtles, alligators, salamanders, snakes, and small mammals such as rodents and shrews.

As for the latest discovery, researchers have named the now-extinct heron Taphophoyx hodgei. The bird’s genus name comes from the Greek words taphos, meaning grave or tomb, and phoyx, meaning heron; its species name honors Eddie Hodge, the owner of the property. Hodge first contacted the Florida Museum of Natural History and allowed them to excavate the site after his granddaughter discovered fossils there in 2015. Since then, nearly 700 volunteers have participated in excavations over multiple field seasons.

“Through the kindness of his heart and being interested — just wanting to know what’s in the ground on his land — Eddie let us in and one thing led to another.” David Steadman, Florida Museum’s curator of ornithology and the lead author of paper, said in a statement. “Naming this heron after Eddie is a minor part of treating him right because he’s been treating us right.”

T. hodgei is the first new species to be described from the Montbrook site, researchers say. Descriptions of several more are yet to be formally published.

“It’s invigorated the local fossil community,” Steadman said. “One of the greatest values of Montbrook is that it’s been such a collaborative learning tool.”

Landowner Eddie Hodge holds the coracoid bone from Taphophoyx hodgei. Image by Kristen Grace/Florida Museum.

Both fossil bones that the volunteers found — Benjamin had dug out a coracoid bone while Shears found a scapula, two of the bones that support a bird’s shoulder — were present in adjacent 1-meter-square grids, suggesting they belonged to the same individual, the researchers say.

Based on their examination of the bones, Steadman and his student, Oona M. Takano, write that T. hodgei is likely closely related to today’s tiger herons (Tigrisoma spp.), which live in Mexico and Central and South America. They’ve named the new species Hodge’s tiger heron as a result.

“This heron adds to this big suite of aquatic birds we’re finding at Montbrook,” Steadman said. “We’re seeing the same families of birds you’d see around wetlands today, but they’re all extinct species. The fun challenge is finding out how closely related any given species at Montbrook is to the birds that we see flying and swimming around Florida today. Even after three and a half years, we’re nowhere near diminishing returns.”

Takano, now a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, added that bird fossils are particularly rare at a site like Montbrook. “In general, bird bones don’t fossilize well because they’re hollow,” she said. “It’s relatively rare to find well-preserved bird bones at all.”

A rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) from Brazil. The researchers say that Taphophoyx hodgei is likely closely related to the tiger herons of today. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Taphophoyx hodgei, a newly described species of extinct heron, was described from two interlocking shoulder bones from the same individual: the scapula, top, and coracoid. Image by Kristen Grace/Florida Museum.

Citation:

Steadman, D. W., and O. M. Takano. 2019. A new genus and species of heron (Aves: Ardeidae) from the late Miocene of Florida. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 55(9):174–186.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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