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The Paleogene fossil record of birds in Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2005

Gerald Mayr
Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Sektion Ornithologie, Senckenberganlage 25, D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Email:
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The Paleogene (Paleocene–Oligocene) fossil record of birds in Europe is reviewed and recent and fossil taxa are placed into a phylogenetic framework, based on published cladistic analyses. The pre-Oligocene European avifauna is characterized by the complete absence of passeriform birds, which today are the most diverse and abundant avian taxon. Representatives of small non-passeriform perching birds thus probably had similar ecological niches before the Oligocene to those filled by modern passerines. The occurrence of passerines towards the Lower Oligocene appears to have had a major impact on these birds, and the surviving crown-group members of many small arboreal Eocene taxa show highly specialized feeding strategies not found or rare in passeriform birds. It is detailed that no crown-group members of modern ‘families’ are known from pre-Oligocene deposits of Europe, or anywhere else. The phylogenetic position of Paleogene birds thus indicates that diversification of the crown-groups of modern avian ‘families’ did not take place before the Oligocene, irrespective of their relative position within Neornithes (crown-group birds). The Paleogene fossil record of birds does not even support crown-group diversification of Galliformes, one of the most basal taxa of neognathous birds, before the Oligocene, and recent molecular studies that dated diversification of galliform crown-group taxa into the Middle Cretaceous are shown to be based on an incorrect interpretation of the fossil taxa used for molecular clock calibrations. Several taxa that occur in the Paleogene of Europe have a very different distribution than their closest extant relatives. The modern survivors of these Paleogene lineages are not evenly distributed over the continents, and especially the great number of taxa that are today restricted to South and Central America is noteworthy. The occurrence of stem-lineage representatives of many taxa that today have a restricted Southern Hemisphere distribution conflicts with recent hypotheses on a Cretaceous vicariant origin of these taxa, which were deduced from the geographical distribution of the basal crown-group members.

Review Article
2005 Cambridge Philosophical Society

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