Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 6.4-meter wingspans

Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 21-foot wingspans
This five-inch segment of fossilized jaw, which was discovered in Antarctica in the 1980s, dates from 40 million years ago. The skull of the bird would have been about two feet long, while the pseudoteeth, which were originally covered with horny keratin, would have been up to an inch long. At this scale, the bird’s wingspan would have been 5 to 6 meters, or some 20 feet. Credit: UC Berkeley image by Peter Kloess

Fossils recovered from Antarctica in the 1980s represent the oldest giant members of an extinct group of birds that patrolled the southern oceans with wingspans of up to 21 feet (6.4 meters) that would dwarf the 11½-foot wingspan of today’s largest bird, the wandering albatross.


Called pelagornithids, the birds filled a niche much like that of today’s albatrosses and traveled widely over Earth’s oceans for at least 60 million years. Though a much smaller pelagornithid fossil dates from 62 million years ago, one of the newly described fossils—a 50 million-year-old portion of a bird’s foot—shows that the larger pelagornithids arose just after life rebounded from the mass extinction 65 million years ago, when the relatives of birds, the dinosaurs, went extinct. A second pelagornithid fossil, part of a jaw bone, dates from about 40 million years ago.

“Our fossil discovery, with its estimate of a 5-to-6-meter wingspan—nearly 20 feet—shows that birds evolved to a truly gigantic size relatively quickly after the extinction of the dinosaurs and ruled over the oceans for millions of years,” said Peter Kloess, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The last known pelagornithid is from 2.5 million years ago, a time of changing climate as Earth cooled, and the ice ages began.

Kloess is the lead author of a paper describing the fossil that appears this week in the open access journal Scientific Reports. His co-authors are Ashley Poust of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Thomas Stidham of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Both Poust and Stidham received their Ph.Ds from UC Berkeley.

Birds with pseudoteeth

Pelagornithids are known as ‘bony-toothed’ birds because of the bony projections, or struts, on their jaws that resemble sharp-pointed teeth, though they are not true teeth, like those of humans and other mammals. The bony protrusions were covered by a horny material, keratin, which is like our fingernails. Called pseudoteeth, the struts helped the birds snag squid and fish from the sea as they soared for perhaps weeks at a time over much of Earth’s oceans.

Large flying animals have periodically appeared on Earth, starting with the pterosaurs that flapped their leathery wings during the dinosaur era and reached wingspans of 33 feet. The pelagornithids came along to claim the wingspan record in the Cenozoic, after the mass extinction, and lived until about 2.5 million years ago. Around that same time, teratorns, now extinct, ruled the skies.

The birds, related to vultures, “evolved wingspans close to what we see in

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Expanding marine protected areas by 5% could boost fish yields by 20%, but there’s a catch

Marine protected areas, or MPAs as they’re more commonly called, are very simple. Areas of the sea are set aside where certain activities—usually fishing—are banned or restricted. Ideally, these MPAs might be placed around particularly vibrant habitats that support lots of different species, like seagrass beds or coral reefs. By preventing fishing gear such as towed seabed trawls from sweeping through these environments, the hope is that marine life will be allowed to recover.


When used well, they can be very effective. MPAs have been shown to increase the diversity of species and habitats, and even produce bigger fish within their bounds. A new study argues that by expanding the world’s MPAs by just 5%, we could boost future fish catches by at least 20%. This could generate an extra nine to 12 million tons of seafood per year, worth between USD$15-19 billion. It would also significantly increase how much nutritious fish protein is available for a growing human population to eat.

So what’s the catch?

Spillover versus blowback

The scientific rationale is sound. We already know that MPAs can increase the numbers of fish living inside them, which grow to be bigger and lay more eggs. The larvae that hatch can help seed fish populations in the wider ocean as they drift outside the MPA, leading to bigger catches in the areas where fishing is still permitted. We know fish can swim large distances as adults too. While some find protection and breed inside MPAs, others will move into less crowded waters outside where they can then be caught. Together, these effects are known as the spillover benefits of MPAs.

The study is the first to predict, through mathematical modeling, that a modest increase in the size of the world’s MPAs could swell global seafood yields as a result of this spillover. But while the predictions sound good, we have to understand what pulling this off would entail.

The study maintains that the new MPAs would need to be carefully located to protect areas that are particularly productive. Locating MPAs in remote areas offshore, which are hard to access and typically unproductive, would have much smaller benefits for marine life than smaller, inshore MPAs that local fishing vessels can reach. Just 20 large sites in the remote open ocean account for the majority of the world’s MPAs. As the low hanging fruit of marine conservation, these MPAs are often placed where little fishing has occurred.

The MPAs themselves would also need to be highly protected, meaning no fishing. Only 2.4% of the world’s ocean area has this status. Increasing this by a further 5% would mean roughly trebling the coverage of highly protected MPAs, and that’s likely to provoke a great deal of resistance. Many fishers are skeptical that spillover can boost catches enough to compensate for losing the right to fish within MPAs and tend to oppose proposals to designate more of them.

People in the UK are often surprised to learn that fishing is allowed in most

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Grafting with epigenetically-modified rootstock yields surprise

Grafting with epigenetically-modified rootstock yields surprise
The grafted tomato plants involved in the research produced seed that resulted in progeny that were, on average, 35% more productive. And that growth vigor persisted in the progeny over five generations in the study. Credit: Penn State

Novel grafted plants—consisting of rootstock epigenetically modified to “believe” it has been under stress—joined to an unmodified scion, or above-ground shoot, give rise to progeny that are more vigorous, productive and resilient than the parental plants.


That is the surprising finding of a team of researchers that conducted large-scale field trials with tomato plants at three widely separated locations over multiple plant generations. They contend that the discovery, which came from a collaboration between Penn State, the University of Florida and a small start-up company in Nebraska, has major implications for plant breeding.

Because the technique involves epigenetics—manipulating the expression of existing genes and not the introduction of new genetic material from another plant—crops bred using this technology could sidestep controversy associated with genetically modified organisms and food. That is the hope of research team leader Sally Mackenzie, professor of plant science in the College of Agricultural Sciences and professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State.

“Although we did this with tomato, it can be done with any plant,” she said. “We think that this study represents a major breakthrough in showing the potential of epigenetic breeding for crops. And later, it will have major implications for trees and forests in the face of climate change.”

Grafting with epigenetically-modified rootstock yields surprise
Xiaodong Yang, assistant research professor of biology (left) and Hardik Kundariya, who recently completed his doctoral degree requirements, led the project in the Mackenzie lab to demonstrate the effects of epigenetic manipulation on plant performance. Here, they are shown evaluating epigenetically modified Arabidopsis plants for changes in growth. Credit: Penn State

Building on previous research conducted by Mackenzie’s research group at Penn State, the rootstock came from tomato plants in which researchers manipulated the expression of a gene called MSH1 to induce the “stress memory.” That memory is inherited by some progeny, giving them the potential for more vigorous, hardy and productive growth.

The MSH1 gene gave researchers access to the pathway controlling a broad array of plant resiliency networks, explained Mackenzie, who is the Lloyd and Dottie Huck Chair for Functional Genomics and director of the Plant Institute at Penn State. “When a plant experiences a stress such as drought or prolonged extreme heat, it has the ability to adjust quickly to its environment to become phenotypically ‘plastic’—or flexible,” she said. “And, it turns out, it ‘remembers.'”

The finding that those “remembered” traits passed from the roots through the graft to the top of the plant—published today (Oct. 22) in Nature Communications—is hugely important, Mackenzie pointed out. The grafted tomato plants involved in the research produced seed that resulted in progeny that were, on average, 35% more productive—a stunning outcome, she noted. And that growth vigor persisted in the progeny over five generations in the research.

The plants are

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