Vegaviidae, a new clade of southern diving birds that survived the K/T boundary

Abstract

The fossil record of Late Cretaceous–Paleogene modern birds in the Southern Hemisphere includes the Maastrichtian Neogaeornis wetzeli from Chile, Polarornis gregorii and Vegavis iaai from Antarctica, and Australornis lovei from the Paleogene of New Zealand. The recent finding of a new and nearly complete Vegavis skeleton constitutes the most informative source for anatomical comparisons among Australornis, Polarornis, and Vegavis. The present contribution includes, for the first time, Vegavis, Polarornis, and Australornis in a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis. This analysis resulted in the recognition of these taxa as a clade of basal Anseriformes that we call Vegaviidae. Vegaviids share a combination of characters related to diving adaptations, including compact and thickened cortex of hindlimb bones, femur with anteroposteriorly compressed and bowed shaft, deep and wide popliteal fossa delimited by a medial ridge, tibiotarsus showing notably proximally expanded cnemial crests, expanded fibular crest, anteroposterior compression of the tibial shaft, and a tarsometatarsus with a strong transverse compression of the shaft. Isolated bones coming from the Cretaceous and Paleogene of South America, Antarctica, and New Zealand are also referred to here to Vegaviidae and support the view that these basal anseriforms were abundant and diverse at high southern latitudes. Moreover, vegaviids represent the first avian lineage to have definitely crossed the K–Pg boundary, supporting the idea that some avian clades were not affected by the end Mesozoic mass extinction event, countering previous interpretations. Recognition of Vegaviidae indicates that modern birds were diversified in southern continents by the Cretaceous and reinforces the hypothesis indicating the important role of Gondwana for the evolutionary history of Anseriformes and Neornithes as a whole.

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Y. Davies and S. Bogan who allowed reviewing material under their care. We are deeply indebted to S. Lucero, S. Rozadilla, G. Lo Coco, M. Motta, M. Aranciaga Rolando, and J. D’Angelo for their comments and discussion about early bird radiations. Julia Clarke and Trevor Worthy made valuable comments on an early draft of this manuscript. Special thanks to T. Worthy for his enlightening comments on Vegavis specimen and discussions regarding its phylogenetic position. We also like to thank the anonymous reviewers who made valuable comments that greatly improved the quality of this paper. We thank M. Isasi who skillfully prepared the specimen MACN-PV 19.748 of Vegavis.

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Correspondence to Federico L. Agnolín.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Agnolín, F.L., Egli, F.B., Chatterjee, S. et al. Vegaviidae, a new clade of southern diving birds that survived the K/T boundary. Sci Nat 104, 87 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-017-1508-y

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Keywords

  • Vegavis
  • Vegaviidae
  • Gondwana
  • Neornithes