Prehistoric Turkey Found in Museum Archives


Fossil skeleton of Centuriavis lioae from Nebraska. Right: Suzanne Lio, Managing Director/COO of the Bruce Museum. | Image by Journal of Palentology

After sitting in the museum archives of the Bruce Museum of Greenwich, Connecticut, for nearly a century, paleontologists have discovered a new distant relative of turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving.

The fossilized fowl, named Centuriavis lioae, is claimed to be roughly 11 million years old. Although it may be too old to serve alongside mashed potatoes and stuffing, the bird gives paleontologists a window into the evolution of landfowls.

The fossil was rediscovered by Bruce Museum Curator Daniel Ksepka and Curatorial Associate Kate Dzikiewicz. Both Ksepka and Dzikiewicz used a CT scan to recreate the shape of its skull and analyze the skeletal features. Quickly, they realized they were looking at an undiscovered species.

The Centuriavis lioae is estimated to be about the size of a modern sage grouse or a large chicken.

According to the research, the paleontologists suggest that the discovery “supports the hypothesis of a single dispersal from Asia to North America by a lineage that later gave rise to grouse and turkeys.”

Before the discovery of the Centuriavis lioae, previous turkey predecessors were found in various bits and pieces and created “confusion rather than improving how these charismatic landfowl evolved.”

Although almost completely intact, the dinosaur fossil has remained untouched since its discovery in 1933.

The name Centuriavis means “century bird” in Latin — a reference to its original 1933 discovery in Nebraska. The second part of the name is a credit to the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer at the Bruce Museum, Suzanne Lio.

“I’m so thankful to have even been considered for this honor,” said Lio in a statement.

“It may come as a surprise that such a beautiful and nearly complete fossil could go unstudied for almost 100 years,” said Ksepka.

“This isn’t a unique case,” he suggested. “There are relatively few paleontologists in the world, and only a small percentage of those study birds. Many other important fossils are surely sitting in cabinets waiting to be studied or even still inside their plaster jackets, waiting to be freed from the rock.”

Ksepka has discovered prehistoric birds before. Previously, he unearthed the earliest species of bird estimated to be from 66.7 million years ago. Fellow researchers jokingly called it the “Wonderchicken” before being renamed by Ksepka as Asteriornis maastrichtensis.

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