Extinct Jamaican bird used club-like wings to batter enemies

Reconstruction of Xenicibis skeleton. Image credit: Nicholas Longrich/Yale

An extinct Jamaican bird used club-like wings to fight its enemies, and scientists say it’s unlike any other bird – or reptile, mammal, or amphibian – known to have lived. Scientists say these birds used their wings to deliver heavy blows to enemies, just as a thug would swing the weighted end of a club.

Xenicibis xympithecus was a large, flightless ibis, a type of wading bird that has relatives alive today. Xenicibis has long puzzled scientists with the bizarre structure of its wing bones. Instead of hand-like bones at the tip of its wings, Xenicibis had thick, curved bones that look a bit like heavy bananas. The bones, in combination with an elongated wrist and forearm, can be used as a club, scientists say.

Nicholas Longrich and Storrs Olsen have reconstructed a complete skeleton of the bird, and described it in a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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But how do the scientists know that the birds were actually using their bizarre wings to fight? They found some pretty compelling evidence in two Xenicibis specimens that had displayed healed fractures in their wing bones. That means that the birds were hitting something with enough impact to break their bones.

Xenicibis fossils, compared with the skeletons of other birds wings, seen at bottom. Image credit: Nicholas Longrich/ Yale

Ibises are known to be very territorial birds whose disputes quickly escalate to fighting, so Xencibis could have found occasion to bare wings against each other. Or, they could have employed their wings in defense against predators. Longrich and Olsen note that Xenicibis is also unusual in the fact that it evolved to become flightless (most living ibises can fly) at a period when many predators were lurking around that could have preyed on its eggs or young. The species’ primary defense might have been their wings.

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Several other species of birds, such as swans, steamer ducks, and the spur wing goose, feature weapon-like adaptations such as sharp spurs, bony knobs, or blades to batter rivals and predators. Though Xenicibis went extinct from the Earth thousands of years ago, its club-like wings have still not met their fossil match.

January 6, 2011

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