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Spec Dinosauria: Xenornithes

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INTRODUCTION

Spec's birds are puzzling creatures, but few bird groups have proved as troubling as the xenorniths. After a very confusing history of many different classifications (members of this clade have, at times, been classified as euornithians, oviraptorosaurs and enantiornithians), Xenornithes has finally come to rest near the roots of the avian family tree. Xenorniths are now generally accepted to be very basal birds, related to Confuciusornithidae, a taxon known only from fossils from the Early Cretaceous of East Asia. We can only speculate that two peculiar lower jaws from the Late Cretaceous of the western USA and southern Argentina bridge the gap between Chinese Confuciusornis and the Xenornithes, which are so far only known from the Cenozoic of Spec. They have been known to sound like a cross between a parrot and a penguin.

HISTORY

So far, the Xenornithes seem to appear in Spec's fossil record out of nowhere; none are older than the Eocene. There are a few probable xenornith bones in the London Clay and a few more in the Green River Formation of Wyoming. Germany's Messel shale preserves several species, adapted to climbing and varying degrees of flight. Messel has also yielded a beautifully preserved specimen of the flightless †Palaeocarpo. By the end of the Eocene, most of these birds had gone extinct, but a few, such as the early carpos and bunglebirds, survived. These two remaining branches form one a group of apelike climbers, the other somewhat similar to Specworld parrots could not be more different, and were classified separately for some time.

XENORNITHIFORMES (Bunglebirds and nerds of paradise)

Of the two xenornithian groups, the bunglebirds most closely resemble their confuciusornithid ancestors. But some differences in form have accumulated in 120 million years of evolution.

The principal feature of the xenornithiforms, distinctive to the clade, is their hand structure. Like all Xenornithes, bunglebirds retain all three fingers. However, in the bunglebirds the great claw of digit one (the thumb) has enlarged even further and evolved into a flattened airfoil, called an ‘aileron’. Most ornithothoraces (Enantiornithes and Euornithes) possess a similar structure in the alula or "bastard wing", which serves the same purposes, but consists of feathers, while the claw is usually very small or absent. Aside from the aileron, bunglebirds also retain a long, clawed third finger, which is used in climbing and grooming.

Pehuen-cracker (Pillan araucana)

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Pehuen-cracker, Pillan araucana (Los Andes Mountains)

The Pehuen-cracker (Pillan araucana) its the most austral xenornithinean bird and one of the best adapted bunglebirds to cool forest. The name of this bird comes of the seed of the Araucaria tree (genus Araucaria). The seed of this tree are bery rich on almidon and are the base of the diete of many animals on the cool Araucarias forest, common in occidental Patagonia and the south of Los Andes montains in South América. This forest are the home of the Pehuen-cracker, that eating the araucaria seed and lived on the same tree. This birds lived on group of six to nine individues and only make the nest on summer. The comonal nest are built with branches of araucaria and coverd with mosses and leaves of ferns. The putrefaction of the mosse liberates heat that helps to maintain the eggs on the apropiate temperature. Two femes of the group feel alternately the nest. On winter the group moved to the central valley of Chile.

Today's bunglebirds are reluctant fliers and prefer to climb with their feet, beak and 3rd fingers, but once in the air, they are powerful and deliberate fliers. Bunglebirds, like the early confuciusornithids, lack tail feathers (aside from the decorative tail streamers of the males of most species), and so all of their lift and steering comes from their wings, which are long and tapering like those of a swoop or mistrider. Bunglebirds tend to be very good gliders and soarers, but avoid dense jungles, where their long wings might tangle in foliage. These birds are, instead, most common in old-growth tropical and semi-tropical forests, where millennia of growth and attention from herbivores have created a relatively clear understory in which the birds can fly. But some species can also be found between the treetops of cold-temperate forests.

Green Bunglebird (Xenornis viridigenalis)

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Green bunglebird, Xenornis viridigenalis (Southern North America)

The green bunglebird is an enigmatic member of an enigmatic clade. One of the last remaining North American xenornithians, the green bunglebird feeds upon fruits, nuts, and young leav
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Left aileron of a green bunglebird, Xenornis viridigenalis

es, and occasionally munches flowers and large insects. Locally common in the marshes of Florida and parts of Louisiana, this medium-to-large bird (never shorter than twenty centimeters) is reluctant flyer, preferring to hitch its way along stout branches, ripping apart the tough-skinned fruits with its powerful beak.

Green bunglebirds nest in large, carefully constructed nests high above the forest floor. The few young are fed insects and fruits and fiercely defended with all claws and the beak.

European Nutcrack-Soarer (Nucicida europaeus)

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Adult female European nutcrack-soarer, Nucicida europaeus (Europe)

A nutcrack-soarer nest typically contains some 3 eggs. The young are fed mostly fed first with insects, and later with fruits and regurgitated nut fragments; they reach adult size in some 6 months and maturity after another 3.

So far, nutcrack-soarers have not been seen on the ground, although they do come down and eat off hazelnut bushes (p-Corylus paravellana) when there is no hazelnut tree (p-Corylus hypoallergenica) in the vicinity.

VOMTIAVINAE (Nerds of paradise)

Various groups of bunglebirds have repeatedly lost most or all flight capabilities (and have changed the aileron back to a normal claw) when becoming stranded on an island with rich food supply. The nerds of paradise (Vomitavis), which adorn the isle of Madagascar, are one of those clades that has re-invented the carpo body-type. Despite their evolution away from flight, nerds of paradise do retain relatively large wings which they use to glide between tree limbs as well as from a tree to the ground.

Davie's Nerd of Paradise (Vomitavis marjanovici)

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Davie's nerd of paradise, Vomitavis marjanovici (Madagascar)

Visitors to the steaming, stinky, bug-ridden jungles of Madagascar will often hear a strange nasal call booming through the trees with mind-numbing regularity. Those foolish enough to trace the source of this racket may get a close encounter with the most aberrant member of an already highly aberrant clade: Davie’s nerd of paradise, also called the chunderbird. More often than not, these encounters are immediately followed by loud swearing and the frantic wiping of one’s face and clothing.

Davie’s nerd of paradise is a large xenornith unique to the island of Madagascar. An inhabitant of dense tropical forests and mangroves, this nerd of paradise dwells amongst the lower canopy and buttress roots, where – unusually for a xenornith – it forages on the forest floor.

If its annoying call (“Nyaaaaaaaaah!”) and rank odour aren’t sufficient clues, a quick glance in its direction is (thankfully) all that is needed to positively identify a nerd of paradise. This hideous, yet decidedly comical creature, is gangly, with a bloated, stubby torso and large, powerful claws. Its head and neck are almost naked, the flesh being a raw pink in colour save for a bib-like wattle that is grey on the females and yellowish on the males. The body feathers of the female are a dull mottled brown whilst those of the male are a metallic black or greenish-black that is quite striking in a dorky sort of way.

Whereas most other xenorniths deftly scamper through the canopy, gracefully leaping or flying from tree to tree, the motions of the nerd suggest it is considerably less at ease up in the canopy. It slowly and timidly waddles amongst the branches, the head lolling about in a drunken manner. When threatened by an arboreal predator, the nerd of paradise lets go with its feet and plummets to the ground below, relying on its robust build and reasonably well-developed wings help to prevent serious injury.

It is the diet of the nerds of paradise that is responsible for their most infamous habits. Like most other xenorniths, they feeds on fruits, nuts and foliage. Davie's nerd of paradise has also acquired a taste for insects and forest fungi. Unusually though, the nerd targets foodstuffs that have exceedingly high concentrations of phenols, alkaloids and other toxins, making them unpalatable to most sane creatures. These include such delectable items as pee-pee fruit, overfiend stranglers and a variety of toxic mushrooms. Many of these species have evolved these poisons specifically to deter other fruit-eaters and now rely completely on the indiscriminant tastes of the nerd to distribute their seeds.
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Different nerd of paradise puke-attack styles, displayed by Davie's nerd. Top: bolus used for long range sniping. Bottom: the short ranged chunder-spray.

To cope with such a horrific diet, the nerd has an enlarged crop which houses a diverse flora of bacteria. There, the actions of these microbes, combined with special secretions of the nerd, denature the toxins to an acceptable level. The digestible portion of the resulting brew is then shunted into the stomach for proper digestion. However, this process quickly fills the crop with a foul-smelling soup of semi-liquid waste material that varies in color from greenish to yellow depending on the animal’s food intake.

As a result, a glutted nerd of paradise must purge the contents of its crop every few hours, a process accompanied by much loud retching, belching and splattering. As the crop can hold over a liter of the stuff, a nerd will often cover a considerable area with hot, noxious spew. A pith helmet thus an essential piece of kit when walking through the Malagasy jungle.

A nerd, however, rarely completely empties its crop in one burst, as the animal has a number of uses for this vile goop. Being hit in the face with this stuff is usually enough to deter most attackers and a threatened nerd is likely to spew at anything that moves. Depending on the tactical situation a nerd has several different modes of puking. Through contractions of the oesophagus, it is able to project a small bolus of ejecta with great accuracy to a distance of over 4 meters. If suddenly faced with a close-range threat, the bird can violently expel its entire reserve it a single buckshot-spray attack. When it notices a potential threat immediately below it (be it a croclion or a human) it simply points its head down and empties its crop, allowing its spew to cascade onto its target.
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A Davie's nerd of paradise displaying its remarkable insect-hunting technique.

While nerd hens are quite sociable, the cocks are solitary and use their puke to mark territorial boundaries, engaging each other in barf-bolus shootist-duels. Breeding males clear a circular display patch on the forest floor. He then entices potential mates to him with loud calls and vigorous dancing. Before the assembled females, he chunders on the ground in the center of the circle. The females approach the puke-puddle, carefully examining and tasting the contents to assess the health of the male. If suitably impressed, mating then follows and the females depart to raise the young on their own.

Finally, and most remarkably, the nerd uses its crop gunk to acquire protein to supplement its diet. Nerds are often seen lying motionless on the ground in or near a pool of the stuff. The foul-smelling brew attracts a variety of insects, which the nerd snatches up with lightning fast snaps of its beak. Larger animals attracted to the swarms such as damselflies, spiders and small lizards sometimes become mired in the gunk allowing the bird to consume them at a more leisurely pace.

Frilled Nerd of Paradise (Vomitavis spielbergi)

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Frilled nerd of paradise, Vomitavis spielbergi (Madagascar)

Recent explorations in Africa and Madagascar have found several new species, previously unknown to science. One of these bizarre creatures is the frilled nerd of paradise (Vomitavis spielbergi). The frilled nerd shares many features with its larger relative, Davie's nerd of paradise. Both are built stout, with long lanky necks. There are some reports of possible hybridization between the two species, but this fact has yet to be confirmed. There might easily be a third species of nerd of paradise.

The frilled nerd has a vibrant emerald coat of feathers, which makes it very difficult to spot in the tropical foliage. This nerd gets its name from the halo of feathers that surround its neck. When fully extended, this bright display acts as a warning to predators, or to rival males. When provoked, usually by a jagator, the frilled nerd will spit projectile vomit into its challenger's eyes. The toxic fluids singe the skin and may cause blindness.

Unfortunately, as soon as reports of this creature reached our home world, Hollywood instantly lunged at the opportunity.

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"The Lost Lunch: Jurassic Park X" - a film semi-facetiously pitched after the discovery of Vomitavis spielbergi.

PITHECAVIFORMES (Carpos, carpos of paradise, ground carpos, and the makak)

CARPONIDAE (Carpos)

Carpos are curious animals that look like a cross between teddies and Specworld parrots, since they are heavily convergent with both clades, but their true phylogeny has long eluded specbiologists.

These feathery fruit-eaters were long though to be aberrant maniraptors, a theory which turned out be technically true, although not as the original specbiologists had thought. Carpos are, in fact, members of that most aberrant of all maniraptor groups; they are birds.

The xenornithian explosion at the beginning of the Eocene produced a wide range of confuciusornithid-derived forms that were then wiped out at the end of that epoch. A few clades survived, however, among them flightless, arboreal fruit-eaters such as Palaeocarpo, the forebear of modern Pithecaviformes. Living carpos are a little different from the Eocene Palaeocarpo, with dumpy bodies, powerful hands, and heavily-built beaks. Found in Africa, Madagascar and south-eastern Eurasia, these creatures generally eat fruits and nuts, although there are some species that eat leaves and flowers. All pithecaviforms are flightless, but many species are rather good at leaping. Several species retain well-formed primary feathers on their lower arms, which they use to make controlled leaps between trees.

Black Carpo (Carpo princeps

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Black carpo, Carpo princeps (Southern and central Africa)

At about a metre in length, the black carpo is the largest known xenornithian. It feeds on large fruits and nuts, but occasionally also eats insects and small vertebrates. The first two captured black carpo specimens were completely black-plumed melanistic mutants, and lead to the slightly misleading name of the species.

Eurasian Carpo (Carpo dignus)

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Eurasian carpo, Carpo dignus (Southern Eurasia)

The most widespread carpo species, the Eurasian carpo, ranges from the Mediterranean to India. Rapacious and clever omnivores, these 50 cm long carpos will eat anything from fruit to small mammals to carrion.

Dwarf Carpo (Parvocarpo levis)

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Dwarf carpo, Parvocarpo levis (Eastern Africa)

The dwarf carpo is a very small pithecaviform, weighing only 80 g. Unlike its relatives, which are mostly crestless, it has a small keratinous crest behind its nostrils.

Dwarf carpos eat mostly fruits and nuts, but supplement their diet with insects, especially burrowing grubs, which they extract from under bark with their strong fingers. This behavior is especially evident in those regions of the carpo's range where primates are rare, while in places inhabited by lemurs and galagos the dwarf carpo's diet is more vegetarian.

Zebra Carpo (Parvocarpo marjanovici)

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Zebra carpo, Parvocarpo marjanovici (Southern Africa)

The zebra carpo is a close cousin of the dwarf carpo, and not much larger, weighing around 400 g. Like the dwarf carpo, the zebra carpo's beak is topped with has a small crest, whose stripes have gained it its name.

Forest Carpenter (Tignaria silvestra)

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Forest carpenter, Tignaria silvestra (Southern Africa to South Asia)

Like all carpos, the forest carpenter builds a brooding nest using mainly sticks and branches. The species has, however, become known for its "craftsmanship", which is helped by its long, mobile fingers. The nest doesn't let any rainwater in, and is easy to clean after the hatchlings have left. A forest carpenter couple usually uses the same nest for many years, and even after it has been abandoned, it is often used by other carpos, more normal birds, arbronychosaurs, or a variety of other animals. Forest carpenter nests can last for decades in favorable conditions.

PARADISICARPONIDAE (Carpos of paradise)

Carpos of paradise reside in the deep forests of equatorial Africa, and are therefore very difficult to observe. A recent expedition has brought some new species to knowledge. Nothing is known about their nesting habits, and it is believed are primarily fruit- and nectar-eaters.

São Tomé Carpo of Paradise (Paradisicarpo inexpectatus)

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São Tomé carpo of paradise, Paradisicarpo inexpectatus (São Tomé and Príncipe, and possibly Gabon)

Residing in the mountainous steamy jungles of the São Tomé Archipelago (and possibly in Gabon), the São Tomé carpo of paradise was unknown to science until it was discovered quite recently by an American expedition with the precise aim of registering the diversity of carpos of paradise. Its mountainous inaccessible habitat has made it difficult to observe this species. However, one specbiologist was able to shoot and preserve one male specimen (one of the few specimens sent back to Home Earth and now stored in the AMNH).

Jungle Demon (Nyctocarpo strix)

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Jungle demon, Nyctocarpo strix (Sub-Saharan Africa)

A frightening appearance belies the gentle nature of this slow-moving nocturnal herbivore. Jungle demons are most active at night and feed primarily on leaves, bark, flowers, and succulent epiphytes, leaving fruit to other carpos. They also raid nests of stored plant matter, however.

These highly territorial animals advertise their presence around dusk and dawn with metallic rattling screeches, further adding to their demonic image.

Makak (Pithecornis maximus)

The nefarious predator of small animals along the shores of southeastern Asia is the makak (Pithecornis maximus), a large (12 kg) and inquisitive carpo. It eats fruit also, but relies heavily on stranded fish and eggs to add needed nutrients to its diet. Its chant-like call is known to resemble "Broda-dy-tale-angs-du-bihindh!", as they leap over the trees and hillocks near the shore. Its massive beak and topknot head plumage are notable features of its generally sandy-colored bauplan.

TERRACARPONIDAE (Ground carpos)

While not a particularly diverse group, ground carpos are found throughout the open areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The origins of this group are still shadowed in mystery, as transitional fossils have yet to be found, although genetic tests link the group with the diminutive carpos of paradise.

Significant changes, both morphologically and behaviorally, have accompanied the evolution of these carpos to the drying climate of the savanna. Their hands, having been partially freed from the task of grasping locomotion, are more generalized tools for defense and food procurement, and have longer heavy claws. Ground carpos are also large to gigantic when compared to true carpos, and show far more social behavior than their arboreal brethren, finding defense in numbers in the dangerous world of Spec's open savanna and grasslands. 

Ndegenyani (Terracarpo papio)

The east African ndegenyani is a typical member of its cosmopolitan genus. Weighing around 20kg, this ground carpo is quite resourceful. Sharing with other carpos the unique ability among theropods to rotate their wrists, they have the ability to dig with their hands, which they do with gusto, digging up roots and grubs with their powerful forearms. The majority of their diet, however, is generally grasses, seasoned with insects and other small prey items.

Ndegenyani, like the rest of their genus, are well known for their cooperative behavior, a rarity among birds. Whenever foraging through open ground, some members of the troop stay at the perimeter, and, if they see a predator, signal to the troop through a loud call, run to the center of the group, and display of their vivid "signal feathers" normally hidden in their underwing. When given the chance, they generally prefer to retreat to an isolated stand of trees, however when cornered ndegenyani will often defend their troopmates with a rain of blows, particularly if they are mates or blood relatives.  They have also been known to harass kagru feeding on termites until they give up, scooping up much of the bounty for themselves. 

Gurezamora (Geladavis minor)

Africa generally has more diverse dinosaurian fauna in highlands than other continents due to comparably few areas being treacherous or dropping below freezing, but the Ethiopian highlands, particularly the Semien Mountains, pose problems for large native herbivores such as saurolopes, who are found only in limited numbers here. Ground carpos, however, being excellent climbers, are common throughout this region.

The gurezamora is a medium-sized member of its clade, weighing around 30kg. It is a specialized grazer, spending the majority of its time sitting, tearing grass out at the roots with its dexterous hands, and shoveling the grass, roots and all, into its mouth. While just as social as its lowland cousins, it doesn't display the same range of complex behavior. This is probably due to being under far less threat of predation besides the occasional foolish Illve, the only predator of gurezamora are avisaurs, who are known to pick off the very young. 

Grootvoel (Geladavis oswaldi)

The highlands of southern Africa are a pocket of cool temperate climate on a continent dominated by the tropics, with temperatures dropping as low as -7 Celsius in some areas in winter. Saurolopes cannot survive in this region, and the cold-tolerant herbivores of the boreal realm, streks and segnos, never made it below the Sahara. As with the Ethiopian highlands, the dominant forms here are mammals, but grazing ground carpos are found here that are closely related to those found much further north. Presumably the Geladavis genus now has a disjunctive range and was formerly found across east Africa.

The grootvoel is by far the largest carpo, weighing in at 100kg. However, it would never be confused for similar-sized gorillabirds while it spends most of its time feeding and sitting down, when on the move it knuckle-walks. Much like its northern cousins, it specialized grazer, dining on the many grasses common throughout the region. Unlike them, however, it faces substantial risk from local predators, including the veldrak. Its enlarged, sharp claws, coupled with the long reach of its powerful arms, make for deadly weapons, making a frontal assault a foolhardy endeavor. 

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