Oldest Parrot Fossil Found -- In Scandinavia?

Matt Kaplan in London
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2008
The fictional dead Scandinavian parrot that an unhappy customer tried to return in a famous Monty Python TV sketch may have a 54-million-year-old real-life ancestor, if a new study is to be believed.

An ancient bird found on Denmark's Isle of Mors has already been nicknamed the "Danish blue" in honor of the fictional "Norweigan blue" breed of parrot featured in the 1970s British comedy show.

The fossil—a large wing bone called the humerus—represents the oldest and most northerly remains of a parrot ever discovered, the study authors say.

Parrot fossils are scarce, because their small, light bones tend to be destroyed before they can become fossilized.

The discovery suggests that parrots evolved in the Northern Hemisphere before branching into wildly diverse species in the southern tropics.

"I had been looking at a lot of parrot bones before this fossil ever came to us, and when I saw it I really started wondering if it might be a parrot," said study co-author David Waterhouse, who researched the fossil between 2002 and 2006 on a scholarship with University College Dublin.

Scandivanian Tropics

Today no wild parrots live in northern Europe. The birds are mostly confined to Earth's southern tropical regions.

(Related: "Feral Parrot Population Soars in U.K., Study Says" [July 8, 2004].)

During the Monty Python sketch, the shopkeeper tries to explain to the customer that the reason the parrot isn't moving is because it is "pining for the fjords."

But the newfound Danish blue would have flown over a decidedly more lush and tropical Scandinavia—one that resembled the habitat of modern parrots.

During this time Europe was in the midst of a warm period, and a lagoon covered much of the continent.

The ice age that created the countries' trademark fjords would not occur until millions of years later.

So parrots living in Europe during this warm spell makes sense, Waterhouse said.

(See a time line of prehistoric life.)

The study appeared this month in the journal Palaeontology.

Bone of Contention

The presence of a deep groove and an extended margin on the head of the bone, among other factors, suggested to Waterhouse and colleagues that the wing most likely belonged to a parrot.

But some experts question the parrot conclusion.

Gerald Mayr, an avian paleontologist at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, was not involved with the study.

"There is no question that this is, in fact, a bird, but I'm not at all convinced that this a parrot," he said.

"Making identifications using just a single [wing bone] is not easy with modern birds—doing it with such ancient birds is risky at best."

Mayr also added there were other birds at the time that had similar bones.

Cecile Mourer is an avian paleontologist at the University of Lyon in France.

"This may be a parrot, but is very hard to tell without the bone in hand," said Mourer, who also was not involved in the study

"It could also be an ibis, which wouldn't be surprising, since ibis have been found during this period—but specialized parrots have not."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.