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Dr Alan Channing

Hot spring environments and ecosystems through time
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Terry McEneaney, Yellowstone National Parks ornithologist, wrote this piece for his website http://www.ravenidiot.com - it is the background to the death and preservation of Yellowstones oldest bird!

 

For the original page visit - http://www.ravenidiot.com/mbt/21.htm
 

Montana Best Times: Big Sky Birding Column

 

Yellowstone's Oldest Bird (June 2008)

In one of the early Yellowstone scientific expeditions, Ferdinand Hayden proclaimed in 1872, "I can conceive of no more wonderful and attractive region to the explorer ".One of the great rewards of being outdoors in Yellowstone is the opportunity to make a personal discovery. I have been extremely fortunate and count my "lucky feathers", having been in the field my entire career has given me many "moments of discovery". I would like to share with you a unique discovery involving what I call to date "Yellowstone's oldest bird".

 

On September 20, 1998, Alan Channing, a geology graduate student studying hot springs sinter deposits from the University of Wales, came across something very unusual. In traipsing over the landscape in the vicinity of the Norris area, he and his small field team came across a rather odd impression in the siliceous sinter that drew his curiosity. On course examination and encrusted in this sinter, was what appeared to be an odd air pocket that had a peculiar form. It appeared to be the shape of a bird. Was it possible? And if so what species was it? So Channing immediately went to the nearest telephone and called and asked if we could meet the next day in the field, he had something he wanted to show me.

 

So the next day we hiked to the area of ancient high temperature sinter hot spring deposits covered with tall lodgepole pine. He proceeded to go to the top of this ancient mound and sure enough there it was, an impression resembling an odd shaped air pocket in the sinter. Closer examination revealed well preserved feather impressions, and an obvious head and body shape and holes where there once were legs. It was indeed an impression of an encapsulated bird, and I had good idea from experience what it was, but I wanted to do comparative work in a lab to make absolutely sure of the identification of the specimen. Finding a vertebrate in hot springs deposits is a very rare occurrence. The body of the bird was entirely gone, but the body form and the feather features were definitely that of an encrusted bird. Now that the impression was exposed to the elements, its shelf life was limited in the outdoors, so it was placed in the YNP Yellowstone Cultural and Heritage Center under the accession number 147421 to preserve the specimen for perpetuity.

 

So what was the bird? The bird turned out to be an American Coot (Fulica americana). It could easily be identified by its unique 3-dimensional body and head mold. The impression or negative cast was so well preserved that one could easily see the frontal shield on the base of the beak, which is a unique characteristic of coots. And the size was identical to modern day coots. Unfortunately, no impressions of the lobed feet could be found, just the insertion of where there once were legs.

 

And how old is this bird anyway? Since the lodgepole pines covering the area are 300 years old. It is safe to say the bird is at a minimum 300 years old. However, these siliceous sinter deposits date as far back as the late Pleistocene to the early Holocene, ranging as far back as 16,000 years ago. Fossil records of American Coots in other areas of North America show them dating back to the Pleistocene. But without means of carbon dating physical evidence, it remains a mystery as to the true age of this bird.

 

There are two theories as to how the bird ended up this state: either there was a hydrothermal explosion and the bird ended up entombed in the sinter deposits, or the most advanced explanation was that the bird immediately died upon entering the hot water environment and was quickly encrusted in rapidly deposited silica which often occurs during cold weather. Regardless of the conjecture, it resulted in a dead American Coot whose body was encapsulated and finally disintegrated, and all that remained was a perfectly preserved feather and body impression of what appears to date as being "Yellowstone's oldest bird".

 
For the entire published scientific work of this unique find please consult: Channing, Alan, Mary Higby Schweitzer, John Horner, and Terry McEneaney. 2004. A Silicified Bird from Quaternary Hot Spring Deposits. Proc. R. Soc.B. doi:10:1098/rspb. 2004. 2989. Published online.