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Earliest bird fossils found in NZ

Published: 6:46PM Monday February 11, 2008 Source: ONE News

A team of Australian palaeontologists have discovered the earliest bird fossils ever found in New Zealand.

The group had returned to the Chatham Islands expecting to find more dinosaur bones, but instead they were stunned to see a new area of exposed rock that held even greater treasures: bones from four seabirds dating back 65 million years.

The find, which is every palaeontologist's dream, is a collection of bird bones preserved in sandstone as hard as concrete.

The fossils are from the time just after New Zealand separated from Gondwanaland and they it is one of the biggest discoveries in the New Zealand region.

"If you can think of two kilometres of bones to look at, it is information overload," says Jeffrey Stilwell, a palaeontologist from Monash University.

Around 65 million years ago in the region where the fossils were found, the temperature was slightly warmer, there was thick forest, birds, fish and dinosaurs roamed the region and there is evidence the land stretched from the islands all the way back to New Zealand.

Stilwell says there are other fossils too in the region.

One of the largest bones found could be a big toe from a very large therapod, a species of dinosaur.

The Chatham Islands 65 million years ago was mostly seabed, so it is no surprise that most of the bones found belong to marine reptiles.

"We're talking flippers, massive teeth, big carnivore&king of the ocean," says one of the palaeontologists in the Australian team.

But it is the bird bones that international experts are really interested in. 

"This is one of the larger bird bones we've found from a seabird about a metre tall," says Stilwell

Bird bones are rare because they're so small and fragile they are hardly ever preserved

"When I first laid eyes on the first bones of seabirds, it was disbelief," says Stilwell.

The palaeontologists now have bones of four different species.

The new find is exciting locals.

"Its quite amazing in my book to find sea monsters&the plesiosaurs and the dinosaurs, the land monsters in the one seabed and now finding birds&Where's it all going to end?" says Terry Tuanui, a Chatham Islander.

It is back to the lab for the palaeontologists for now and it will take months to remove the bones and verify what birds they come from. 

"We do have some ideas but we're keeping it under wraps just for the moment," says Stilwell

The team will be back - for them this is just the beginning.    

"It's of benefit to everybody to know about the history of our planet," says Stilwell.