Fossils of Unknown Songbird Species Discovered in 12,000-Year-Old Volcano

An extinct species of songbird fossils were found in the Azores
A small songbird perches on a vine in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania, October 11, 2010. Fossils of an extinct songbird were discovered in the Azores, according to a study released on July 27. Stelios Varias/REUTERS

Hundreds of years ago, various species of Bullfinch songbirds took flight and lived among the Azores archipelago, a group of nine major islands in the Atlantic Ocean about 900 miles away from Portugal. A number of the small bird species, known for their short and wide beak, were wiped out following Portuguese colonization of the archipelago in the 1400s. However, scientists recently found fossils of a new species of the Bullfinch songbird in a 12,000-year-old volcano on the Azores' Graciosa Island.

An international team of researchers led by paleontologist Josep Antoni Alcover, from the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies, discovered the bones of the new extinct songbird species, Pyrrhula crassa, while excavating an enclave where lava once flowed within the volcano. Despite the small number of bones the scientists found, the remains discovered were sufficiently distinctive enough for the researchers to classify the songbird within its own unique species.

The report of the finding, published in the journal Zootaxa on Wednesday, focused specifically on how the team analyzed morphology of the bird's beak to determine the new species—and its relatively large size. The researchers noted that the Pyrrhula crassa skull remains they found were significantly bigger than the skulls of other songbirds that once roamed the Azores, and of current living species of the bird. They also found the Pyrrhula crassa wing length to be bigger than the average songbird, suggesting this may have allowed it to fly in a way similar to that of larger birds living on São Miguel Island.

"Its short and wide beak was not just considerably bigger, but also relatively higher than that of the common bullfinch or that from São Miguel, with a very robust configuration reminiscent to an extent of the beak of a small parrot," Alcover said in a statement. Based on the skull and wing length, the researchers determined the extinct Pyrrhula crassa may have been the biggest of the Bullfinch genus.

The researchers think multiple factors caused the extinction. Humans may have cut down their habitat to build their own homes. The birds also may have died out following the introduction of invasive plant species that depleted and reduced the laurel forests where the birds once lived. Such was the case in other regions of the Azores, including the Canary Islands and Madeira, where several bird species were eviscerated when invasive plants brought by early settlers thrived to excess.

Although remains of the new species were only discovered on Graciosa, Alcover said the bird may have also lived on other islands within the Azores archipelago as well.