Scientists have identified a new species of pigeon believed to have lived in New Zealand more than 16 million years ago – and related to the dodo.
The Zealandian dove has been identified from fossil bones of a wing and pectoral girdle found innear St Bathans, Central Otago.
It is believed to be a close relative of the dodo, a flightless bird endemic to Mauritius and featured in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It became extinct in the 17th century.
Researchers from Canterbury Museum, Flinders University, Te Papa and University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney found the new species from the pigeon family lived in the South Island between 16 and 19 million years ago, their paper in the Paleontologia Y Evolucion de las Aves said.
Lead author Dr Vanesa De Pietri, a Canterbury Museum natural history research curator, said the discovery of the Zealandian dove was the first recording of this group of birds found in the southern part of the nearly submerged land mass known as Zealandia.
“It is probably most similar to the Nicobar pigeon and is therefore a close relative of the famous dodo.”
Flinders University paleozoologist Dr Trevor Worthy said there was a diverse number of pigeons in New Zealand about 16 to 19 million years ago. At least two distinct co-existing lineages were taking advantage of the more diverse fruiting trees available in the southern part of Zealandia at the time.
“Pigeon fossils are rare in the St Bathans fauna and are outnumbered by about 30 to one by parrots, which perhaps reflects the relative abundance of these tree-dwelling birds in the St Bathans fauna.”
Te Papa curator Alan Tennyson said the disappearance of the Zealandian pigeons from New Zealand’s fauna was likely linked to the marked climate cooldown that took place between 13.8 million and 14.2 million years ago.
“Until then New Zealand’s subtropical flora and fauna was very diverse with fruit-bearing trees such as laurels. This loss of floral diversity certainly had an impact on fruit and seed-eating birds and may have been responsible for the subsequent loss in pigeon diversity in New Zealand.”
He said the key bones, which were discovered about 10 years ago, took a long time to work through.
“It takes a lot of comparisons to work through the bones to figure out the detailed relationship.”
Tennyson said it was fantastic being able to identify the bird and find its specific ancestors.
“It helps understand this bird on a global scale.”
UNSW Sydney vertebrate palaeontologist Sue Hand said fossils recovered from the St Bathans site numbered in the thousands.
“[They] document a time of great biodiversity in New Zealand’s history.
“For many of New Zealand’s very distinctive bird lineages, such as moa and kiwi, the St Bathans fossils provide their oldest and sometimes first deep time records.”
She said the discovery of the Zealandian dove and its links to the dodo was “a fascinating addition to the unfolding picture of New Zealand’s prehistoric wildlife”.
The Zealandian dove is the second pigeon found at the St Bathans fossil site. Some years ago the St Bathans pigeon, which was believed to be a relative of New Zealand’s two living native pigeons and the Australian topknot pigeon was discovered there.
Tennyson said the St Bathans fossil site was a “treasure trove” of fossils like no other in the country.
The kereru and the closely-related Chatham Island pigeon are the only two native pigeons in New Zealand today.