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!
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.
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.
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
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".
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.