Kazakh phoenix rises from the bone fragments

A recently published journal article announced the discovery of Samrukia nessovi, a giant bird from prehistoric Kazakhstan (Naish D, Dyke G, Cau A, Escuillié F & Godefroit P 2011, “A gigantic bird from the Upper Cretaceous of Central Asia”, Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0683).

Samrukia – named after the Samruk, a pheonix-like bird from Kazakh mythology – could have been 2-3 m tall, or had a 4 m wingspan, depending on whether or not it could fly. And it lived in the late Cretaceous period, over 65 million years ago.

What’s incredible is that all of this was deduced from a pair of fossilised jaw bones dug up decades ago and, until now, languishing unidentified in Belgium.

How can palaeontologists reach such incredible conclusions from mere bone fragments?

Two possible body shapes for the Samrukia, compared for size with a human and a typical flying bird from the same period (click to embiggen)
What the Samrukia may have looked like if it either could or couldn't fly (left and right, respectively), compared for size with a human and a typical bird from the same period. (Image by John Conway)

To find out, I recommend popping over to the rather excellent blog Tetrapod Zoology, written by Darren Naish, who also happens to be one of Samrukia‘s discoverers (as well as an expert on many other aspects of zoology and palaeontology, including the science of Godzilla).

The discovery, or rather identification of Samrukia is a fascinating tale of scientific deduction that demonstrates how bones from different types of creatures have distinct properties that help you to tell them apart and, importantly, rule out other possibilities.

I’ll leave the rest of the story to Dr Naish; but before you go there, it might help to know the following technical terms:

  • Ramus, plural rami, is the section of lower jaw that extends from the joint with the skull. You have one on each side of your head.
  • Symphyseal region, or simply symphysis, is the part where the two rami meet. You may know this as your chin.
  • Cotyles and pneumatic foramina (singular foramen) are features of rami from up where they join the skull.
  • Theropods are from the suborder Theropoda, which includes certain two-legged dinosaurs as well as modern birds.

Find out the rest at Tetrapod Zoology…


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