By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News
Huge old beak
Pelicans have sported big beaks for at least 30 million years, the discovery of an ancient pelican fossil reveals.
Researchers uncovered the remains of the earliest known pelican, including a preserved beak, in southwest France.
What has surprised them most about this ancient pelican is that it is almost identical to modern species.
That means that pelicans and their huge beaks have survived unchanged since the Oligocene epoch, say the scientists in the Journal of Ornithology.
"It is so similar to modern pelicans, despite its 30 million years," Dr Antoine Louchart of the University of Lyon, France told the BBC.
Dr Louchart discovered the fossil while examing specimens held by his colleague Nicolas Tourment, who is a private collector of fossils from the Luberon area in southeastern France.
Mr Tourment bought the ancient pelican years ago from another collector who found it in the area in the 1980s.
But its significance only became clear when Dr Louchart looked at it closely.
"I was surprised by the completeness and quality of preservation of this fossil. It is embedded in a very fine lacustrine limestone which preserves all the details," says Dr Louchart.
The prehsitoric pelican is comparable in size to the smallest pelicans living today, and belongs to the same genus Pelecanus.
It is around 1 to 1.2m long from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail, and likely had a wingspan of around 2m.
Its well preserved beak is a little more than 30cm long, and contains a special joint within that allows its two parts to be extremely distended, opening up the pouch used to collect fish.
"It is remarkably similar morphologically to the seven species of living pelican, but its proportions differ slightly from all of them, so it probably represents a distinct species," says Dr Louchart.
The discovery has surprised the researchers, because it reveals just how little pelicans have evolved over huge expanses of time.
In the early Oligocene, fish existed that were similar in size and shape to the modern prey of today's pelicans.
That suggests that pelicans quickly evolved their huge beaks and have maintained them almost unchanged since because they are optimal for fish feeding.
However, it could also be that the giant beak has not evolved in the past 30 million years because of constraints imposed by flying.
The idea is that once pelicans evolved bodies capable of flying with such a large beak, the beak itself couldn't evolve further without compromising the birds' ability to fly, essentially locking in its design.
"It shows an example of stasis, or no morphological change, in the skeleton, although perhaps changes in other characterisics occured, such as plumage or behaviour," says Dr Louchart.
Few other flying animals appear to have survived unchanged for so long. The only other good examples, says Dr Louchart, are bats, which have a body shape that appears to have survived unaltered for around 50 million years.