University of Bristol logo and link to main University of Bristol website                                 composite image showing trilobite, coral section, ammonite, fossil fish and brachiopods



Fossil record

Psittacopes lepidus, EoceneTraditionally it is thought that the closest living relation to parrots was the Colubiformes but some morphological studies have placed Psittaciforms as the sister branch of Coraciiformes or that of Coliiformes. Furthermore, research from molecular studies places parrots as the sister taxon of the large clade comprised of an assemblage of neognath birds, however is widely accepted that they are one of the oldest avian orders in modern times.

To date, the majority of palaeontological evidence is based on very few genetic studies. Fossil parrot remains are rare and those that have been identified are often the subject of much debate. Early Psittaciformes have mainly been found in the northern hemisphere (Walton-on-the-Naze, England;Messel, Germany, etc.), with only a few, relatively recent, essentially modern parrot remains being found within their present range (mainly in tropical and sub-tropical Australasia and South America). These northern European specimens are thought to be by some, as a sister clade to modern Psittaciformes as they lack reduced furculas and the curved bill, but do possess the zygodactyl feet.

The earliest fossil originates from the Early Eocene period approximately 55 million years ago, however some fragmentary fossils, such as a mandible bone, which design is only known to be attributed to the Psittaciforme order, dates from as early as the Late Cretaceous (65 Million years), however whether this truly represents  an early parrot, remains highly controversial.  

Why the lack of fossils?

One could argue that the reason behind the lack of knowledge concerning Psittaciformes is the very low fossil number available to work with. There are several reasons for this low number including the fragility of bird bones (birds have hollow bones) and the fossilisation process itself. It is unlikely that terrestrial environments like subtropical forests and the lifestyle of arboreal birds would allow for the fossilisation process to occur after death. Sites with high success rate of fossilisation will be normally be of an aquatic environment with unusual sedimentary deposition rate, such as the Messal oil shale's of Germany. In the fact that majority of Avifauna fossils are represented by aquatic/semi aquatic species.

The chart below shows the what, where and when of parrot fossils.

Million years Epoch Name of fossil found Location
0.15 - 0.0 Ma Holocene  Lophopsittacus mauritianus Mauritius
1.8 - 0.15 Ma Pleistocene Rhynchopsitta phillipsi (Late Pleistocene) Mexico
1.4 - 1.8 Ma Pliocene Nandayus vorohuenseis (Late Pliocene) Buenos Aires Province, Argentina
23.7 - 1.4 Ma Miocene Cacatua ??? (Early Miocene)
Archaeopsittacus verreauxi
Queensland, Australia
Verreaux, France
36.6 - 23.7 Ma Oligocene
57.8 - 36.6 Ma Eocene Qeurcypsitta ivani and sundrei (Upper Eocene)
Psittacopes lepidus (Mid Eocene)

Pulchrapollia gracillis (Lower Eocene)
Phoshorites dy Quercy, France
Messel, Germany
London Clay, Essex Britain
65 - 57.8 Ma Palaeocene None recorded
144-65 Ma Cretaceous Parrot mandible???, Loriidae? Lance Formation- Wyoming USA

Image Mayr and Daniels 1998

A Fossil record for the avain taxa can be found here courtasy of Fred Ruhe

Author: Terri Brittin
Last updated 17/11/2006
Return to Fossil group home page

Website produced by students on the MSc Palaeobiology programme in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol for the academic year 2006 -7