Featured Fossil: New Heron described from the Montbrook Fossil Site in Levy County, Florida

By Rachel E. Narducci

Around 5 million years ago, Williston, Florida was a very different place. The gulf coast was much further inland than it is today, i.e. most of the land around State Road 24 out to Cedar Key would’ve been underwater. There was also at least one river that no longer flows through and tons of creatures roaming around, many now extinct. So far, through extensive digging efforts beginning in November of 2015, over 100 different fossil taxa have been discovered from this ancient river system. One of these taxa is a new genus and species of large heron described by David Steadman and Oona Takano and published in the Florida Museum Bulletin, Volume 55 (click here to read).

Hodge displays the fossil coracoid, the largest and strongest of three bones that make up a bird’s shoulder, from his namesake heron. Credit: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

The new heron was given the scientific name Taphophoyx hodgei, pronounced taf-o-fi-ox hodge-i, which equates to a common name of Hodge’s Tiger-Heron. The authors chose the genus name because, “Taphophoyx is derived from the Greek words taphos, meaning grave or tomb, and phoyx, meaning heron (Brown, 1956:381, 408). Both words are masculine. The first half of the name Taphophoyx refers to the large concentration of fossils of gomphotheriid proboscideans at Montbrook, rendering the site the paleo-equivalent of an ‘elephant graveyard’.” The species name, hodgei, was chosen to “honor Mr. Eddie Hodge, who has been most generous to the Florida Museum of Natural History in providing logistical help and in granting permission to excavate and study the fossils discovered on his land.”

Recovered fossil specimens of the coracoid (UF 425443) and scapula (UF 431654) of T. hodgei​​ in different views. Scale bars represent 10 mm

The holotype fossil specimen is a complete left coracoid and was discovered on November 9th, 2017 by a University of Florida student volunteer, Toni-Ann Benjamin. The paratype is a nearly complete left scapula discovered a few days later on November 16th, 2017 by volunteer Sharon Shears. The excavation area at Montbrook is gridded out in 1-meter by 1-meter squares and the two type specimens of our new heron were discovered in adjacent squares. They are also both left-sided and similar in size, allowing a reasonable assumption that these elements are from a single individual. The coracoid and scapula in birds makeup part of the shoulder region and play a major role in flight.

Toni-Ann Benjamin said, “I loved going to Montbrook every Saturday during the Fall semester because of the people I got to meet and the atmosphere was relaxing. I could just sit down and get lost in my thoughts digging for fossils.” Both specimens used to describe the new taxon were discovered in the field, but later deemed significant during the screenwashing and curation process back at the lab.

Eddie Hodge, center, holds a signed copy of the study naming a new species of extinct heron discovered on his property in his honor. Vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, left, and ornithologist David Steadman visited the fossil site with Hodge to share the news. Credit: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

In their publication, David Steadman and Oona Takano indicate that the two skeletal elements are the only ones yet discovered from Montbrook that belong to a heron. To better understand how the Montbrook heron compares to others, they looked at boney features on the coracoid and scapula across the entire family of modern and fossil heron. The features indicate a new taxon, possibly more closely related to the modern-day boat-billed and tiger herons than to other herons. Today, the boat-billed and tiger herons live throughout South America and north into Mexico, so inhabit a neotropical environment.

Size-wise, measurements of the new Montbrook heron are closest to those of Ardea cinerea (grey heron – Eurasian and African distribution) and Ardea cocoi (cocoi heron – South American distribution). Both of these herons are large, long-winged and long-legged waders, with body masses of about 1443 grams (~3 lbs).

Without the help of dedicated individuals volunteering their time to dig in the field and process fossils back at the lab, a majority of the most important discoveries from this 5-million-year-old river setting would be unknown to science. Since the excavation began in November of 2015, about 1,550 individuals have spent 479 days digging for over 25,700 hours. The next digging season will likely begin in November of 2019 and if you are interested in getting involved visit the Montbrook website by clicking here.