The Oldest Passenger Pigeon Fossil

How old is the earliest passenger pigeon fossil?  A single wing bone found at the Lee Creek Mine paleontological locality in North Carolina is 3.7 to 4.8 million years old, a time period known as the Early Pliocene. It is reasonable to ask whether a fossil that old is from the same species as the historically known passenger pigeon, and the paleontologists who identified it were cautious, officially labeling the humerus bone Ectopistes aff. migratorius, but also stating that “Apart from the slightly larger size, which probably would have been encompassed by variation in the recent species, the fossil shows no distinguishing differences from E. migratorius.” (Olson and Rasmussen 2001:300).

The thousands of other fossil bird bones found here were originally deposited in deep marine water and in fact most of the identified birds are ocean-going species like auks, shearwaters, and albatrosses. Land based birds (including the passenger pigeon) comprise a very small proportion of the assemblage (Olson and Rasmussen 2001).

Lee Creek Mine Humerus
The Pliocene passenger pigeon humerus (l, o) compared to a modern pigeon (Rock Dove, Columba livia, m, p) and historic passenger pigeon (n, q). Source: Plate 33, page 364-365, Olson and Rasmussen 2001.

Reference:

Olson, Storrs L., and Pamela C. Rasmussen

2001       Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina.  Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 90:233-365.

 

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