Fossil Record of the Charadriiformes

Charadriiformes have a rich (relatively anyway, generally the birds fossil record is pretty poor) and old fossil record. The modern charadriiforme order is estimated to be about 80 million years old from RAG-1 DNA sequencing, but many of the most ancient putative Charadriiforme fossils that date from the late Cretaceous are highly incomplete and often single elements of questionable affinity. As a result, shorebird-like fossils of the Cretaceous are frequently placed within the Graculavidae or 'transitional shorebirds', a cladistically untested order with a large amount of surrounding controversy.Various authors contest the place of the transitional shorebirds in bird phylogeny, whether or not they are basal to Charadriiformes and/or all modern birds (Neornithes) is hotly debated.

The vast majority of fossil charadriiformes are known from fragmentary remains, and a lot of what we know about them is inferred from their closest living relatives. As there is a generally good correlation in the Charadriiformes between form and function, and most extinct forms found are either very close to or within existing genera, such assumptions seem fairly safe to make.

Here, I shall concentrate on the 'true' Charadriiformes only, i.e. those we would recognise as members of the extant order, in order to avoid confusion. The purpose of the following list is a quick assessment of the current literature on fossil Charadriiformes and aims to give a good idea of the quality of their fossil record, and current thinking were certain fossils should be classified.

"»" Denotes extinct taxa (Palaeotaxa).


The geologic timescale: Next to each family entry is the geological time range fossils of that family have been found in.

Basic Bird Anatomy: I have given brief descriptions of  where the various bones mentioned on this page are from, but this should help to visualise them a little better.

Basal forms

Fossil Gulls and Allies

This group contains a number of large families which are correspondingly well represented in the fossil record.:

Larini (Gulls): Lower Oligocene-Pleistocene
Sternini (Terns): Miocene-Pleistocene
Stercorarinae (Skuas): Mid Miocene-Pleistocene

Alcinae (Auks): Eocene-Pleistocene

»Turnipacidae: Oligocene

Glareolidae (Pratincoles and Coursers): Miocene
Fossil Sandpipers and Allies

Jacanidae (Jacanas): Miocene

Scolopacidae ('typical' Waders): Oligocene-Quaternary

Fossil Plovers and Allies

Charadriinae (Plovers and Lapwings): Oligocene-Pleistocene
Heamatopodinae (Oystercatchers): Pliocene-Pleistocene
Recurvirostridae (The Avocets): Eocene?
Burhinidae (The Thick-knees): Pleistocene

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