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A Connecticut scientist discovers ancient relative of the turkeys we enjoy each Thanksgiving

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Provided Photograph
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Mick Elison
Daniel Ksepka, a paleontologist at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, has published research detailing a Centuriavis lioae fossil that sat untouched for years in a museum collection in New York.

Daniel Ksepka says you can think about the new species of bird he helped identify as the founder of the “great Thanksgiving lineage.”

“This is a bird that is branching off the evolutionary tree before grouse and turkeys separate,” he explained. “This is a fossil precursor of those animals. It may have been one of the first members of that lineage to make it into North America.”

Ksepka is curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. And he’s part of a team that identified the new species of bird named Centuriavis lioae, which lived about 11 million years ago in what is now Nebraska.

Back then, Nebraska looked a lot different.

“It was more of a savanna environment,” Ksepka said. “You’d see rhinos walking around … [and] land tortoises, so a lot of animals you might associate with the African savanna.”

The fossil eventually made its way to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Ksepka said he spotted it in the archive as a graduate student years ago and was blown away by how well-preserved it was.

“Birds have rather delicate bones, so you’re often finding only a few pieces. And they’re crushed. Or they’re disarticulated,” Ksepka said. “In this case, we had the skull with the vertebrae and the wings all in this beautiful lifelike pose.”

Ksepka, who has also identified a massive prehistoric flying bird, said he sat on the fossil find for years. But eventually, he started scanning its bones and systematically comparing it to other fossil records, which are voluminous.

“In the 1800s and the early 1900s, paleontologists would often name a fossil based on a few scraps of bone,” Ksepka said. “This is something that’s new to me, but is there a single foot bone or a single wing bone [in another archive] … and it could actually belong to that specimen?”

Computer scans and comparative fossil research eventually determined it was a novel species of bird. While all birds are technically dinosaurs, Ksepka joked in an email that, “all humans are technically lobe-finned fish. But, I certainly would not describe the bird as [a] ‘new dinosaur discovery.’” That’s because dinosaurs (along with many prehistoric sea creatures like plesiosaurs) went extinct tens of millions of years before radiometric dating indicates this bird existed. The finding was recently published in the Journal of Paleontology.

Ksepka said the story of finding a novel fossil species sitting untouched in an archive is a surprisingly common one in paleontology. The field has a massive backlog of specimens but a relatively small number of experts capable of preparing and studying them.

“They’re sitting in museum collections – sometimes there still in the classic plaster jacket that you see in Jurassic Park – and no one’s had the time to take it out and prepare it,” Ksepka said. “It can take hundreds of hours for a single skeleton to get fully prepared.”

“Once they’re prepared, there’s not that many paleontologists in the world,” he said. “There’s no one available with the expertise to study that particular type of animal.”

Ksepka said the fossil was named after Suzanne Lio, the managing director of the Bruce Museum.

As for the specimen itself? It’s back in an archive at the American Museum of Natural History – sitting among hundreds of thousands of other ancient specimens holding new insights into Earth’s prehistoric past.

“It’s sitting in the drawer next to probably a couple other birds that need to be described,” Ksepka said. “I think that drawer will yield some new papers over the next few years.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.