Fossil bird eggs from the Pliocene of Laetoli, Tanzania: Their taxonomic and paleoecological relationships

Terry Harrison

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    Recent paleontological investigations at the Pliocene site of Laetoli and at neighboring localities on the Eyasi Plateau of northern Tanzania have led to the recovery of a sizable collection of fossil bird eggs. The material comes from the Upper Laetolil Beds, dated at ∼3.6-3.8 Ma, and the Lower Laetolil Beds, dated at 3.8 Ma to older than 4.3 Ma. The preservation of relatively complete eggs (other than those of ratites) is an extremely rare occurrence in the fossil record, and Laetoli is the only locality in Africa that has produced such well-preserved eggs. Deposition of carbonatite air-fall tuffs led to the rapid burial of the eggs sub-aerially, and they were then preserved in paleosols that were geochemically conducive to their preservation. The collection of fossil eggs from Laetoli can be assigned to at least five different species of ground-nesting birds, including two or three species of francolins, a species of guineafowl, and a larger bird of uncertain taxonomic status about the size of a bustard. Most of the eggs can be assigned to a large species of Francolinus, similar in size to the extant F. afer and F. leucoscepus. A smaller species of francolin, about the size of Francolinus coqui or F. sephaena, is also represented, but is less common. A single egg may represent an even smaller species of francolin, about the size of Francolinus lathami or F. nahani, but its attribution to Francolinus is less certain. The evidence of at least two species of Francolinus at Laetoli indicates that francolins were already taxonomically diverse in East Africa by the mid-Pliocene. Three eggs are similar in their overall dimensions and morphology to the living Numida meleagris, the helmeted guineafowl. An avian community including at least one small species of francolin, a larger francolin, and a guineafowl (as well as ostriches and a vulture) implies that the paleoecology at Laetoli was likely to have been open woodland, bushland, savanna or grassland. However, francolins and guineafowl generally require low brush and thickets for refuge, as well as trees to roost in at night, so they tend to prefer mosaic ecotonal habitats offering open feeding areas with good visibility, but with dense vegetation cover and patches of woodland nearby.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)289-302
    Number of pages14
    JournalJournal of African Earth Sciences
    Volume41
    Issue number4
    DOIs
    StatePublished - Apr 2005

    Keywords

    • Eggs
    • Francolinus
    • Numida
    • Paleoecology
    • Pliocene
    • Taxonomy

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geology
    • Earth-Surface Processes

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