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South American bird sailed the Atlantic on jetsam? Well, lotta jetsam out there.

Newly hatched bird has claws on its thumb and first finger to climb branches until it can fly./J. Arthur Thomson, 1922

From “Across the Atlantic On Flotsam: New Fossil Findings Shed Light On the Origins of the Mysterious Bird Hoatzin” (ScienceDaily, Oct. 9, 2011), we learn that an internatinal team believes that the South American hoatzin originated in Africa, and crossed the Atlantic on flotsam:

The Hoatzin is a funny old bird: a poor flyer, the chicks equipped with claws on their wings, it lives on the banks of the Amazon and Orinoco basins in South America. What is particularly unusual about this bird is its purely vegetarian diet. Digestion does not only take place in the stomach but above all in a greatly enlarged crop, where bacteria help to decompose the food. The digestive system of the Hoatzins is very reminiscent of that of a mammalian ruminat.

But not only is the anatomy of the bird unusual; its relationship is still unclear. Since its scientific description in 1776, the Hoatzin has been bracketed alternatively with game birds, cuckoos or the African turacos. However, no relationship with these groups has been proven convincingly until now. For this reason, the bird is usually allocated its own family and genus.

Fossil finds seem related to 17 million year old bones from Namibia. Africa and South merica were once joined as part of Gondwana but that was – the researchers say – too long ago for this fine to be explained that way. Hence, they arguethat the bird – a poor long-distance flyer – travelled on flotsam:

This means of travel using flotsam is already familiar with regard to some primates, rodents and lizards, but it would be the first proof of a similar journey by a bird.

Proof? Hey, wait a minute, how did we get from a dating puzzle to proof of a rather unlikely feat? What if people tried that in any science field except evolutionary biology? How about in historical biography?:

We know John, Third Earl of Plonkney, must have been a child genius because our dating method places him at Oxford at seven years of age.

Oh? And that fact attracted no remark at the time, nor for centuries after, especially in view of his otherwise uneventful life? Might we not look for other explanations for this anomaly first?

It all comes of feeling pressured to draw a conclusion too early. It’s fun watching evolutionary biologists defend this sort of thinking.

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