The bizarre wing of the Jamaican flightless ibis Xenicibis xympithecus: a unique vertebrate adaptation

Nicholas R. Longrich, Storrs L. Olson

Abstract

Birds have frequently evolved to exploit insular environments by becoming adapted to a terrestrial lifestyle and losing the ability to fly, usually via reducing the wings and pectoral girdle. The enigmatic flightless ibis Xenicibis xympithecus (Threskiornithidae) from the Quaternary of Jamaica provides a rare example of flight loss in ibises. We report on previously undescribed fossils of Xenicibis, and show that the wing differed radically from that of all other birds, flightless or volant. The metacarpus is elongate, grotesquely inflated and has extremely thick walls; phalanges are short and block-like; the radius is distally expanded; and the humerus is elongate. The furcula, coracoid and sternum are all well developed. We propose that the elongate forelimb and massive hand functioned in combat as a jointed club or flail. This hypothesis is supported by the morphology of the carpometacarpus, by features permitting rapid extension of the wing and by the presence of fractures in wing bones. Although other birds use the wings as weapons, none resemble Xenicibis, which represents a unique and extraordinary morphological solution to this functional problem. Xenicibis strikingly illustrates how similar selective pressures, acting on a similar starting point, can result in novel outcomes.

  • Received October 5, 2010.
  • Accepted December 6, 2010.
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