World’s oldest fossil of the magpie family discovered in Queensland

By: Jacqueline Nguyen, Dr Walter Boles, Category: Science, Date: 14 Jan 2014

A new genus and species of a songbird related to magpies and currawongs sheds light on the evolution of these birds in Australia.

Kurrartapu johnnguyeni

Kurrartapu johnnguyeni
Photographer: Jacqueline Nguyen  © Jacqueline Nguyen

We have described the world's oldest fossil of the songbird family Cracticidae, which includes well-known Australian species such as the Australian Magpie, currawongs and butcherbirds.

This fossil bird lived about 16-23 million years ago and was slightly smaller than the iconic Australian Magpie.

This new genus and species is named Kurrartapu johnnguyeni in honour of Jacqueline’s late father, John Nguyen.

Our description of this new fossil bird is based on a leg bone that was discovered in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area, north-western Queensland.

Riversleigh is one of the richest fossil sites in Australia, and has produced thousands of fossils of ancient mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Although a lot is known about the ancient mammals that lived at Riversleigh, Kurrartapu johnnguyeni is one of the very few fossil songbirds to be described from this time period in Australia.

This new species adds to our understanding of the early evolutionary history of songbirds, which make up nearly half of all living bird species and are thought to have originated in this part of the world.

Jacqueline Nguyen
PhD student

Dr Walter Boles
Senior Fellow

More information:
Nguyen, J.M.T., Worthy, T.H., Boles, W.E., Hand, S.J., & Archer, M. (2013) A new cracticid (Passeriformes: Cracticidae) from the Early Miocene of Australia. Emu 113, 374-382.

Tags birds, ornithology, Australian Museum Research Institute, biodiversity,