Late Cretaceous – Miocene. 71–15 Ma
Presbyornithidae is an extinct group of birds with a global distribution. They had evolved by the late Cretaceous period and became extinct during the early Miocene. Initially, they were believed to present a mix of characters shown by waterbirds, shorebirds and flamingos and were used to argue for an evolutionary relationship between these groups, but they are now generally accepted to be waterfowl closely related to modern ducks, geese, and screamers.
They were generally long-legged, long-necked birds, standing around one meter high, with the body of a duck, feet similar to a wader but webbed, and a flat duck-like bill adapted for filter feeding. At least some species were social birds that lived in large flocks and nested in colonies, while others, like the Wilaru species, were terrestrial and solitary.
As the "wading duck" moniker implies, they were waterfowl whose elongated legs enabled them to live a lifestyle similar to the "proto-flamingos" (e.g., Palaelodus) – which were not really ancestors of the modern flamingos, but a group that evolved in parallel with them and in fact seems to have taken over part of the presbyornithid's ecological niche after the latter became extinct. Thus, while probably somewhat capable of swimming, they would have preferred to strain the shallow waters of their habitat for food and were also able to snatch up insects and small crustaceans on dry land, just like some species of modern ducks, e.g., the Laysan duck, hunt for brine flies.
Significance in avian evolution
The implication of the plethora of this and other, ecologically similar Neornithes (e.g., the wastebasket taxon "Graculavidae") from the Late Cretaceous and early Palaeogene is that shore habitats offered most resources for ancestors of modern birds. The reasons seem to have been that arboreal niches were where the main radiation of the Enantiornithes had taken place some time earlier, and later on because the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction affected both aquatic and terrestrial habitats extensively, leading to the almost total collapse of their trophic webs. In marine habitats, the climatic changes associated with the mass extinction's cause(s) caused a wholesale die-off of oceanic phytoplankton and thus their food webs were destroyed from the bottom up. In terrestrial habitats on the other hand, apart from the loss of the primary production capacity, the keystone species, which were in almost all cases dinosaurs, disappeared, leading the trophic webs on dry land to collapse also from the inside out.
Specialized taxa of the older bird radiations that were very well adapted to their particular ecological niche and dependent on the intactness of the trophic webs had generally no chance to survive such mass extinctions. It is now apparent that at least the main evolutionary lineages of modern bird families already existed at the end of the Cretaceous, albeit they were somewhat marginal compared to the dominant, earlier groups of birds such as Enantiornithes and Confuciusornithidae. This serves to show that in evolution the possession of derived or "modern" characters can actually be a disadvantage when a species needs to compete against well-established but more "primitive" lineages, especially as it must be understood that "primitive" refers only to descendence from a lineage that had been established a longer time ago, not that these species were any more generalist or less well-adapted than "modern" forms. In fact, that there were "no" (probably rather: very few) arboreal Neornithes by the end of the Cretaceous is today believed to be because the "primitive" Enantiornithes had had more time to develop adaptations to an arboreal lifestyle and were actually able to outcompete the "modern" arboreal forms, leaving vacant only a few possibilities for early Neornithes to evolve an arboreal lifestyle.
At any rate and their evolutionary relationships nonwithstanding, most bird taxa that survived the mass extinction seem to have been living in environments where they could utilize both terrestrial as well as marine or limnic food resources (the ancestors of the Galliformes probably being the one noteworthy exception). Until the trophic webs had diversified and become complex enough again, such generalist forms were at a competitive advantage. When specialization became a feasible evolutionary strategy again, however, they were outcompeted by more advanced taxa. Note that here, too, "generalist" does not imply that these birds were competitively inferior in their entire ecological niche, only that whenever some form evolves specialization for living in part of this niche, the generalis is at a competitive disadvantage in that particular part of its niche. As time progresses and consequently opportunities for specialization accumulate, it may happen that the generalis forms are either forced to specialize themselves to maintain a competitive edge, or disappear, their niche being in effect divided up by specialist forms.
Presbyornithids were similar in many respects to modern day screamers, although screamers are highly adapted for a terrestrial lifestyle compared to other anseriformes and presbyornithids. Presbyornithids might be close relatives of screamers; alternately, their shared features might be primitive for anseriformes, and it is not certain if presbyornithids are part of the anseriform crown group.
Three genera are unequivocally accepted to belong to the Presbyornithidae:
There are some other, undescribed, presbyornithid or possible presbyornithid remains, such as the partial right scapula BMNH PAL 4989, which was considered part of Headonornis hantoniensis, but cannot be positively refererred to a known taxon, or the Early Cretaceous remains from the Mongolian Barun Goyot Formation at Uday Sayr and the Nemegt Formation of Tsagaan Kushu.
- Wetmore, Alexander (1926). "Fossil birds from the Green River Deposits of Easter Utah". Annals of the Carnegie Museum. 16: 391–402.
- Feduccia, Alan (1976). "Osteological evidence for shorebird affinities of the flamingos" (PDF). Auk. 93 (3): 587–601. JSTOR 4084959.
- Vanesa L. De Pietri, R. Paul Scofield, Nikita Zelenkov, Walter E. Boles and Trevor 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 (2): 150635. doi:10.1098/rsos.150635.