London, June 23 (ANI): Pelican fossils that closely resemble today's living species have revealed that the birds were scooping fish from the water while our ancestors were still swinging from the trees.
Researchers have identified an extremely well preserved 30-million-year old fossilised beak, which has triggered interesting questions over why evolution has left the birds so little changed over such a long period.
The nearly complete beak of the 30-million-year old fossil, found in the Luberon area of southeastern France, resembles those of the seven modern pelican species so closely that it falls within the genus Pelecanus, said Antoine Louchart of the University of Lyon, France.
Pelican beaks are the longest of any living birds.
Beneath the beak is a flexible pouch that allows the birds to capture their prey in the water, then spit out the water before swallowing their meal.
Just like other bird beaks, they are rarely preserved as fossils, so little had been known about their early evolution.
Louchart recognised the fossil, discovered in the 1980s, while examining specimens in the collection of his co-author Nicolas Tourment.
Protected by being buried in fine-grained limestone, it includes most beak bones, plus parts of the skull and neck, and strongly resembles the modern great white pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus.
The lack of evolutionary change revealed that the beak has reached an evolutionary optimum for flight or for eating.
However, Louchart thought that neither of these hypotheses offered a complete explanation- he thinks something else may be involved but does not know what that might be.
The finding not only pushes back the origins of pelicans, but of related birds too.
"The groups now thought to be closest to pelicans, the shoebill and hamerkop, must also have differentiated very early," New Scientist quoted Louchart as saying.
The study was published in the Journal of Ornithology. (ANI)