The fossil record of bird behaviour


  • Editor: David Hone


Darren Naish, Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton University of Southampton, Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK.



Between the Middle Jurassic and Holocene, birds evolved an enormous diversity of behaviours. The distribution and antiquity of these behaviours is difficult to establish given a relatively poor fossil record. Rare crop, stomach and gut contents typically reveal diets consistent with morphology but stem-members of some lineages (including Cariamae and Coraciiformes) seem to have been different in ecology from their extant relatives. Most of our ideas about the behaviour of fossil birds are based on analogy (with skull form, limb proportions and claw curvature being used to guide hypotheses). However, this has limitations given that some extinct taxa lack extant analogues and that some extant taxa do not behave as predicted by osteology. Reductionist methods have been used to test predation style and running ability in fossil taxa including moa, Gastornis and phorusrhacids. Virtually nothing is known of nesting and nest-building behaviour but colonial nesting is known from the Cretaceous onwards. Rare vegetative nests demonstrate modern nest-building from the Eocene onwards. Ornamental rectrices indicate that sexually driven display drove some aspects of feather evolution and evidence for loud vocal behaviour and intraspecific combat is known for some taxa. Our knowledge of fossil bird behaviour indicates that ‘modern’ behaviours are at least as old as crown birds. Stem-members of extant lineages, however, may sometimes or often have differed from extant taxa.