Bizarre tubercles on the vertebrae of Eocene fossil birds indicate an avian disease without modern counterpart
Remains of fossil birds with numerous bony tubercles on the cervical vertebrae are reported from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany and the Late Eocene of the Quercy fissure fillings in France. These structures, which are unknown from extant birds and other vertebrates, were previously described for an avian skeleton from Messel but considered a singular feature of this specimen. The new fossils are from a different species of uncertain phylogenetic affinities and show that tuberculated vertebrae have a wider taxonomic, temporal, and geographic distribution. In contrast to previous assumptions, they are no ontogenetic feature and arise from the vertebral surface. It is concluded that they are most likely of pathologic origin and the first record of a Paleogene avian disease. Their regular and symmetrical arrangement over most of the external vertebral surface indicates a systemic disorder caused by factors that do not affect extant birds, such as especially high-dosed phytohormones or extinct pathogens.