Friday, December 18, 2009

'Screaming Roadrunner' Ran Circles Around Dinos

By Jennifer Viegas Thu Dec 17, 2009 05:00 PM ET Discovery News

During the Late Cretaceous, Mongolia's Gobi Desert was home to numerous dinosaurs, mammals and lizards. One of the most eye-catching, and possibly ear-splitting, residents was a newly identified bird.

The new species, which lived 71 to 75 million years ago, has been named Hollanda luceria, after the punk/country band Lucero and the Holland family, whose donations helped to support the research.

"Judging from the size of the hindlimb, Hollanda luceria most closely resembled the modern Southern Screamer," project leader Alyssa Bell, a researcher in the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told Discovery News.

The modern Southern Screamer's call has been likened to a blaring trumpet and a stadium horn.
For the study, which will appear in the February issue of the journal Cretaceous Research, Bell and her team analyzed the bird's remains, which were originally found in the southern Gobi Desert in 1997.

Previous research on avian anatomy concluded that bones in the third toe reflect how much time the bird spent moving on the ground.

The scientists studied these bones and compared them with those of other birds. Bell said the data "shows that our new bird was most likely a ground-foraging bird like a roadrunner or a chucao, implying that it spent a great deal of its time foraging or hunting on the ground."

Other fossils excavated at the site reveal that the newly identified bird was part of an ecosystem consisting of dinosaurs, such as Protoceratops and Velociraptor, mammals, lizards and other birds, like waterfowl Teviornis and the large, clawed Gobipteryx.

Bell doesn't think H. luceria preyed upon dinosaur eggs, "as they would have been too large for the bird to swallow; however, it probably would have been an active hunter of the small lizards and mammals as well as insects that lived in the environment."

The presence of so much diverse wildlife in the Gobi region during the Late Cretaceous, along with geological studies, suggests that this area was once similar to the Channel Country of central Australia or to the Nebraska Sand Hills.

"Thus, Hollanda's environment would have consisted of sand dunes, which had been stabilized by a covering of vegetation, and a continuous water supply that formed shifting streams and ponds," she said. "This interpretation is very different from early research that saw the Late Cretaceous Gobi as a desert of shifting sand dunes and sand storms."

Gareth Dyke, a paleontologist at University College Dublin, told Discovery News that the new research "is interesting," in part because, "Hollanda has quite an unusual ecology and is also well-preserved."

"It has very long legs compared to other birds known from the time and, from this part of the world, shows that early in their evolutionary history birds had evolved a range of ecological adaptations like fast 'road running,'" he added.

Given the Mongolian bird's connection to a musical group, Bell said Lucero "now joins the ranks of artists such as Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel and Mozart in having a species named after them."