New prehistoric bird species identified in Canadian Arctic

Researchers from the University of Rochester have discovered evidence of an ancient bird that inhabited the Arctic at a time when the climate would have been much warmer.

University of Rochester researchers find likely cross between seagull and cormorant, but with teeth

An artist's rendering of Tingmiatornis arctica, the new prehistoric bird species discovered by scientists from the University of Rochester. (Artist rendering by Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

A new species of bird that lived 90 million years ago has been identified in the Canadian Arctic.

Scientists found three fragments of bones —  part of the ulna and parts of the humerus — along with the bones of some vertebrates in 1996 on Axel Heiberg Island. It can often take researchers many years to study prehistoric fossils and make conclusions.

The new species was named Tingmiatornis arctica. Tingmiat means "those that can fly" in Inuktitut. 

Though the discovery allowed scientists to link the bird to its modern-day descendants, the Tingmiatornis arctica doesn't quite resemble the birds we see now.

"The bird would have been a cross between a large seagull and a diving bird like a cormorant, but likely had teeth," John Tarduno, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rochester University and leader of the expedition, said in a statement.

The fossils also provide scientists with a better understanding of the climate and environment during the Cretaceous period's Turonian age, which lasted from around 93.9 to 89.8 million years ago.

Instead of a frigid icy region, the Canadian Arctic would have been more like today's Florida —  but with volcanoes. There would have been a freshwater bay with fish, turtles and even champsosaurs, crocodile-like reptiles that grew to about 1.5 metres long.

The prehistoric volcanoes would likely have pumped a significant amount of carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect in the region. The resultant warming allowed the creatures to flourish.

As a result of their findings, the researchers are challenging the idea that the Arctic would have had seasonal ice. 

"We're suggesting that's not even the case, and that it's one of these hyper-warm intervals, because the bird's food sources and the whole part of the ecosystem could not have survived in ice," Tarduno said.

The researchers hope that their findings will also help determine how a changing climate will affect ecosystems and wildlife in the north. Today, the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on Earth.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.