Bird Palaeontology & Evolution

Research into avian palaeontology and evolution at Flinders covers a wide spectrum of issues, from the origin of birds to the assembly of the modern Australasian avifaunas and how they responded to climate oscillations during the Quaternary.

Our research aims to expand knowledge on the fossil record of birds, especially in but not limited to Australasia, to reveal past avian diversity and the evolution of modern clades. Two time periods are of key interest:

  1. Oligo-Miocene avifaunas of Australia, with a focus on lacustrine and fluvial deposits of central Australia, and
  2. Quaternary avifaunas, through investigations into fluvial, lacustrine and cave deposits.

Key researchers

Associate Professor Trevor Worthy specialises in the identification and taxonomy of fossil birds. He has worked on a wide range of birds including palaeognath ratites, waterfowl, cormorants, parrots and rails.

Dr Jacqueline Nguyen is a DECRA Fellow specialising in the osteology and palaeontology of fossil songbirds or passerines. This group accounts for the majority of birds yet is generally poorly studied in most fossil avifaunas. She is currently assessing the diversity of Oligo-Miocene songbirds from Riversleigh and central Australia, and the composition of Quaternary songbird avifaunas from various localities.

Recent & ongoing research areas

Origins and biology of giant Australasian fowl: The Australasian region includes many of the basal lineages of modern waterfowl (Magpie-goose, Cape Barren Goose, Pink-eared Duck) and landfowl (megapodes) but until recently also had endemic radiations of giant birds in this group. Research projects have studied the osteology and relationships of the endemic New Caledonian Sylviornis, giant extinct Australia megapodes (part PhD project, Elen Shute), and the Australian dromornithid mihirung birds (part PhD project, Warren Handley). Current projects are especially focused on the extinction and biology of the last-surviving mihirung Genyornis newtoni (including PhD project Phoebe McInerney).

Taxonomic descriptions of new Australasian taxa: The fossil avifauna of Australasia is relatively poorly known, especially for the pre-Quaternary period (>2.5 million years ago). Therefore palaeontological investigations of such deposits routinely reveal previously unknown species. Description of such taxa are at the core of understanding the assembly of the modern avifaunas, and is central to much of the research we do (see Publications and PhD projects by Elen Shute, Ellen Mather and Jacob Blokland).

Pacific avifaunas: Trevor Worthy has long worked with collaborators, especially archaeologists including David Burley, Pat Kirch, Atholl Anderson, Matthew Spriggs, Stuart Bedford, and Stuart Hawkins on identifying and describing the fossil avifaunas from many and widespread Pacific islands, including New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Mangareva in French Polynesia. Archaeological investigations often provide the only insight into the prehuman avifaunas of the islands in this region.

The St Bathans early Miocene avifauna: A long-standing research program has been revealing the diversity and relationships of the avifauna and other vertebrates from the early Miocene St Bathans Fauna, New Zealand, with key collaborators in University of NSW, University of Queensland, Canterbury Museum NZ, and Museum of New Zealand. This locality is significant as providing the only fossil evidence of the pre-Quaternary terrestrial biota of that country. Over 40 bird species are known, yet many remain to be formally described.

Quaternary avifaunas of Australasia: Projects are ongoing on fossil bird assemblages from the Thylacoleo Caves, Nullarbor Plain, caves near Naracoorte, South Australia, and Wellington Caves, New South Wales, to assess recent changes in diversity and composition of the avifauna (Jacqueline Nguyen, Elen Shute).

Completed PhD projects

  • Elen Shute, Flinders University, Early and Middle Pleistocene non-passerine bird fossils from the Thylacoleo Caves, Nullarbor Plain (Awarded 2019)
  • Warren Handley, Flinders University, Endocranial anatomy of Australasian flightless galloanseres, with a focus on evolutionary transformation and the phylogenetic utility of the avian brain (Awarded 2020)

Ongoing PhD projects

  • Ellen Mather, Taxonomy and systematics of Oligo-Miocene and Quaternary accipitrids (Accipitridae) from Australia
  • Jacob Blokland, Taxonomy and systematics of Oligo-Miocene rails (Rallidae) of Australia and New Zealand
  • Phoebe McInerney, Biology and relationships of Genyornis newtoni

Key publications from the Flinders Bird Palaeontology & Evolution group

  1. De Pietri, V.L., T.H. Worthy, R.P. Scofield, T.L. Cole, J.R. Wood, A. Cibois, J.J.F.J. Jansen, K.J. Mitchell, A.J. Cooper, S.Feng, W. Chen, A.J.D. Tennyson, & G.M. Wragg. 2020. A new species of Polynesian sandpiper (Charadriiformes: Scolopacidae: Prosobonia) from Henderson Island, Pitcairn Group, and the phylogenetic relationships of Prosobonia. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. online early 7 Nov 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlaa115
  2. Worthy, T.H. & J.M.T. Nguyen, 2020. An annotated checklist of the fossil birds of Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 144(1): 66-108, DOI: 10.1080/03721426.2020.1756560
  3. Worthy, T.H., Burley, D. 2020. The Prehistoric avifaunas from the Kingdom of Tonga. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 189, 998–1045. DOI: 10.1093/zoolinnean/zlz110
  4. Yates, A.M., T.H. Worthy, 2019. A diminutive species of emu (Casuariidae: Dromaiinae) from the late Miocene of the Northern Territory, Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology e1665057 (15 pp). DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2019.1665057
  5. McInerney, P. L., M. S. Y. Lee, A. M. Clement, T. H. Worthy, 2019. The phylogenetic significance of the morphology of the syrinx, hyoid and larynx, of the southern cassowary, Casuarius casuarius (Aves, Palaeognathae). BMC Evolutionary Biology 19:233 (18 pp). DOI: 10.1186/s12862-019-1544-7
  6. Camens, A.B., T.H. Worthy, 2019. Pliocene avian footprints from the Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology e1676764 (11 pages), DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2019.1676764.
  7. Blokland, J.C., C.M. Reid, T.H. Worthy, A.J.D. Tennyson, J.A. Clarke and R.P. Scofield, 2019. Chatham Island Paleocene fossils provide insight into the palaeobiology, evolution, and diversity of early penguins (Aves, Sphenisciformes). Palaeontologia Electronica 3.78 1-92. DOI: 10.26879/1009
  8. Boast, A.P., Chapman, B., Herrera, M.B., Worthy, T.H., Scofield, R.P., Tennyson, A.J.D., Houde, P., Bunce M., Cooper, A. and Mitchell K.J. 2019. Mitochondrial genomes from New Zealand’s extinct adzebills (Aves: Aptornithidae: Aptornis) support a sister-taxon relationship with the Afro-Madagascan Sarothruridae. Diversity, 11, 24; DOI: 10.3390/d11020024
  9. Worthy, T.H., S.J. Hand, M. Archer, R.P. Scofield, V.L. De Pietri. 2019. Evidence for a giant parrot from the Early Miocene of New Zealand. Biology Letters 15(8): 20190467. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2019.0467.
  10. Mather, E.K., A.J.D. Tennyson, R.P. Scofield, V.L. De Pietri, S.J. Hand, M. Archer, W.D. Handley, T.H. Worthy, 2019. Flightless rails (Aves; Rallidae) from the early Miocene St Bathans Fauna, Otago, New Zealand. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 17(5): 423-449. DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2018.1432710
  11. Hawkins, S., T. H. Worthy, 2019. Lapita colonisation and avian extinctions in Oceania. Pp 439-467, Chapter 21, In: Eds, S. Bedford and M. Sprigg, Debating Lapita: Distribution, Chronology, Society and Subsistence, Terra Australis Volume 52, The Australian National University Press, Canberra. [ISBN (print): 9781760463304; ISBN (online): 9781760463311; DOI: 10.22459/TA52.2019].
  12. Rigal, S., V. Kirch, T.H. Worthy, 2018. New prehistoric avifaunas from the Gambier Group, French Polynesia. Palaeontologica electronica Article 21.3.4A, pp 1-35. DOI: 10.26879/892
  13. De Pietri L., T.H. Worthy, G.J. Prideaux, R. P. Scofield, 2018. A new species of lapwing (Charadriidae: Vanellus) from the late Pliocene of central Australia. Emu 118(4): 334-343. DOI: 10.1080/01584197.2018.1464373
  14. Lentini, P.E., D. Stojanovic, I.A. Stirnemann, T.H. Worthy, J.A. Stein. 2018. Using fossil records to inform reintroduction of the kakapo as a refugee species. Biological Conservation 217: 157-165. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.10.027
  15. Mayr, G., De Pietri, V.L., Scofield, R.P., Worthy, T.H., 2018. On the taxonomic composition and phylogenetic affinities of the recently proposed clade Vegaviidae Agnolín et al., 2017 ‒ neornithine birds from the Upper Cretaceous of the Southern Hemisphere. Cretaceous Research, 86: 178-185. DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2018.02.013.
  16. Worthy, T.H., F.J. Degrange, W.D. Handley, M.S.Y. Lee, 2017. The evolution of giant flightless birds and novel phylogenetic relationships for extinct fowl (Aves, Galloanseres). Royal Society Open Science 4: 170975. DOI:1098/rsos.170975. Correction: Worthy, T.H., F.J. Degrange, W.D. Handley, M.S.Y. Lee, 2017. Correction to ‘The evolution of giant flightless birds and novel phylogenetic relationships for extinct fowl (Aves, Galloanseres)’, Royal Society open science 4: 171621; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171621.
  17. Shute, E., G. J. Prideaux, T.H. Worthy. 2017. Taxonomic review of the Late Cenozoic megapodes (Galliformes: Megapodiidae) of Australia. Royal Society Open Science 4: 170233 [72 pp] DOI: 10.1098/rsos.170233
  18. Worthy, T.H., L. De Pietri, R. P. Scofield, 2017. Recent advances in avian palaeobiology in New Zealand with implications for understanding New Zealand’s geological, climatic and evolutionary histories. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 43(3): 177-211. DOI: 10.1080/03014223.2017.1307235
  19. Grellet-Tinner, G., N. Spooner, W. D. Handley, T. H. Worthy, 2017. The Genyornis Egg: Response to Miller et al.’s commentary on Grellet-Tinner et al., 2016. Quaternary Science Reviews 61: 128-133. DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2016.12.025
  20. Worthy, T.H. & A. Yates. 2017. A review of the smaller birds from the late Miocene Alcoota local faunas of Australia with a description of a new anatid species. Pp 221-252 In: Paleontología Y Evolutión de Las Aves. Proceedings of the 9th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution, Diamante (Argentina), 1-6 August 2016;  Acosta Hospitaleche, F.L. Agnolin, N. Haidr, J.I. Noriega, C.P. Tambussi (eds), Contribuciones del MACN 7. ISSN 1666-5503
  21. De Pietri, V.L., R.P. Scofield, A.J.D. Tennyson, S.J. Hand, T.H. Worthy. The diversity of early Miocene pigeons (Columbidae) in New Zealand. Pp 49-68 In: Paleontología Y Evolutión de Las Aves. Proceedings  of the 9th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution, Diamante (Argentina), 1-6 August 2016;  C. Acosta Hospitaleche, F.L. Agnolin, N. Haidr, J.I. Noriega, C.P. Tambussi (eds), Contribuciones del MACN 7. ISSN 1666-5503
  22. Hamm, G., Mitchell, L. J. Arnold, G. J. Prideaux, D. Questiaux, N. A. Spooner, V. A. Levchenko, E. C. Foley, T. H. Worthy, B. Stephenson, V. Coulthard, C. Coulthard, S. Wilton, D. Johnston. 2016. Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia. Nature 539: 280-283, DOI: 10.1038/nature20125.
  23. Weisler, M.I., A.B.J. Lambrides, S. Quintus, J. Clark & T.H. Worthy, 2016. Colonisation and late period faunal assemblages from Ofu Island, American Samoa. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 7(2): 1-19. ISSN (print) 1179 4704; ISSN (online) 1179 4712
  24. Shute, E., G. Prideaux, T.H. Worthy, 2016. Three terrestrial Pleistocene coucals (Centropus: Cuculidae) from southern Australia: biogeographical and ecological significance. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 177: 964–1002. DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12387
  25. De Pietri, V.L., R.P. Scofield, S. J. Hand, A.J.D. Tennyson, T.H. Worthy, 2016. Sheathbill-like birds (Charadriiformes: Chionoidea) from the Oligocene and Miocene of Australasia. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 46 (3-4): 181-199. DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2016.1194297.
  26. Handley, W.D., A. Chinsamy, A.M. Yates, T.H. Worthy. 2016. Sexual dimorphism in the late Miocene mihirung Dromornis stirtoni (Aves: Dromornithidae) from the Alcoota Local Fauna of central Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 36(5): e1180298 (21 pages). DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2016.1180298.
  27. Worthy T.H., W.D. Handley, M. Archer, S.J. Hand, 2016. The extinct flightless mihirungs (Aves: Dromornithidae): cranial anatomy, a new species and assessment of Oligo-Miocene lineage diversity. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36(3): e1031345 (21 pages). DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1031345
  28. Mitchell, K.J., R. Wood, B. Llamas, P. A. McLenachan, O. Kardailsky, R. P. Scofield, T. H. Worthy, A. Cooper, 2016. Ancient mitochondrial genomes clarify the evolutionary history of New Zealand’s enigmatic acanthisittid wrens. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 102: 295-304. DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2016.05.038
  29. Worthy, T.H., M. Mitri, W.D. Handley, M.S.Y. Lee, A. Anderson, C. Sand, 2016. Osteology supports a stem-Galliform affinity for the giant extinct flightless bird Sylviornis neocaledoniae(Sylviornithidae, Galloanseres). PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150871 (62 pp). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150871.
  30. De Pietri, V.L., R.P. Scofield, N. Zelenkov, W.E. Boles, T.H. Worthy, 2016. The unexpected survival of an ancient lineage of anseriform birds into the Neogene of Australia: the youngest record of Presbyornithidae. Royal Society Open Science 3: 150635 [16 pp]. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150635.
  31. Grellet-Tinner, G., Spooner, N.A., Worthy, T.H., 2016. Is the “Genyornis” egg of a mihirung or another extinct bird from the Australian dreamtime? Quaternary Science Reviews 133: 147-164. DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2015.12.011
  32. De Pietri, V.L., R.P. Scofield, A.J.D. Tennyson, S.J. Hand, T.H. Worthy. 2016. Wading a lost southern connection: Miocene fossils from New Zealand reveal a new lineage of shorebirds (Charadriiformes) linking Gondwanan avifaunas. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 14(7): 603-616, DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2015.1087064.
  33. Worthy, T. H., S. Hawkins, S. Bedford, M. Spriggs, 2015. Avifauna from the Teouma Lapita Site, Efate Island, Vanuatu, including a new genus and species of megapode. Pacific Science 69(2): 205-254. DOI:2984/69.2.6
  34. Worthy, T.H., A. Yates, 2015. Connecting the thigh and foot: resolving the association of post-cranial elements in the species of Ilbandornis (Aves: Dromornithidae). Alcheringa 39(3): 407-427. DOI: 10.1080/03115518.2015.1015818.
  35. De Pietri, V.L., A.B. Camens, T.H. Worthy. 2015. A Plains‐wanderer (Pedionomidae) that did not wander plains: a new species from the Oligocene of South Australia. Ibis 157: 68-74; DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12215; Blog at http://www.bou.org.uk/plains-wanderer/
Image: Trevor Worthy