Scientists use fossil feathers reveal lineage of extinct, flightless ibis

November 22, 2011
The skull of Apteribis sp. Credit: Carla Dove

A remarkable first occurred recently at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History when ornithologists Carla Dove and Storrs Olson used 700- to 1,100-year-old feathers from a long extinct species of Hawaiian ibis to help determine the bird's place in the ibis family tree. The feathers are the only known plumage of any of the prehistorically extinct birds that once inhabited the Hawaiian Islands.

Discovered with a nearly complete skeleton, the retained enough to allow the scientists to confirm the classification of the bird, known by its scientific name Apteribis sp, as a close relative of the American white ibis (Eudocimus albus) and scarlet ibis (Eudocimus buber). DNA analysis confirmed this classification.

Remarkably, the feathers also retained enough pigmentation for Dove and Olson to determine that the bird was brown-black to ivory-beige in color. This is a first―the plumage color of any prehistorically extinct Hawaiian bird up until now had been speculation.

Apteribis sp. is one of only two species of flightless ibis, both now extinct. Its differs so much from its mainland ancestors that the bird's relationship to other ibises could only be determined through the study of its feathers and .

A detail of the top of the skull showing feathers adhering to the cranium of Apteribis sp. Credit: Carla Dove

"This find is highly unusual because feathers do not preserve well and often decay before a bird is fossilized," Dove said. "These weren't fossil imprints in a rock, but feathers and bones we could actually pick up."

Exceptional geologic circumstances led to the preservation of the feathers inside a lava cave on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai. The floor of the cave was partially covered in a deep layer of flaky gypsum crystals, which, for hundreds of years absorbed humidity in the cave and created an arid environment ideal for preservation of the feathers.

From a taxonomic standpoint feathers are significant because the shape of microscopic barbs on specific areas of a feather have distinct features that taxonomists can use to determine what bird group it belongs to.

This scanning electron photomicrograph shows the prongs on the downy barbules of an Apteribis sp. feather. Credit: Carla Dove

"The barbs are unique only on the downy, fluffy part at the base of the feather, not at the tip," Dove said. "These microstructures are similar among orders of birds—pigeons, ducks, songbirds, for example.

Using specimens from the Smithsonian's collection, Dove compared the microscopic structures of the ancient feathers to those of modern day birds. Her analysis confirmed that Apteribis sp. is most closely related the New World ibises of the genus Eudocimus. Apteribis sp. was first described from fossils found on the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai and Maui. It is one of dozens of bird species known to have gone extinct following the arrival of humans on the .

"Fossil Feathers from the Hawaiian Flightless Ibis (Apteribis SP.): Plumage Coloration and Systematics of a Prehistorically Extinct Bird," by Carla Dove and Storrs Olson appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Paleontology.

Explore further: Scientists 'rebuild' giant moa using ancient DNA

Related Stories

Scientists 'rebuild' giant moa using ancient DNA

July 1, 2009

( -- Scientists have performed the first DNA-based reconstruction of the giant extinct moa bird, using prehistoric feathers recovered from caves and rock shelters in New Zealand.

Some birds may use their feathers to touch

February 15, 2010

( -- A new study of auklets suggests the birds use their ornamental feathers in much the same way as cats use their whiskers: to feel their surroundings.

Evidence Neanderthals used feathers for decoration

February 23, 2011

( -- Researchers studying a large deposit of Neanderthal bones in Italy have discovered the remains of birds along with the bones, and evidence the feathers were probably used for ornamentation. The findings add ...

High-maintenance mallards

June 17, 2011

The shimmery feathers of a male mallard might have a showy quality that appeals to prospective mates, but the water resistance and self-cleaning capabilities of iridescent feathers pale in comparison to those of noniridescent ...

A tool to measure stress hormone in birds -- feathers

August 16, 2011

When faced with environmental threats like bad weather, predators or oil spills, wild birds secrete a hormone called corticosterone. Traditionally, researchers have analyzed blood samples to detect corticosterone levels in ...

Recommended for you

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

Search for Egypt's Nefertiti gains new momentum (Update)

September 29, 2015

The search for ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti in an alleged hidden chamber in King Tut's tomb gained new momentum as Egypt's Antiquities Minister said Tuesday he is now more convinced a queen's tomb may lay hidden behind ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 22, 2011
"Scientists use fossil feathers reveal lineage of extinct, flightless ibis"

Clear evidence of the use of word mills by global media. This identical headline (with its unique omission of the word "to"), and the ensuing text, were published worldwide by a host of different science-related sites. However, it is not a press release from the Smithsonian. More importantly, the Smithsonian didn't publish it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.