IIt’s not uncommon for someone to have a child named after them, but few can claim the privilege of having a prehistoric bird named after them. And it was the unlikely tribute to Suzanne Lio, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, that inspired the name Centuriavis lioae of a species identified by her colleagues, museum curator Dr. Daniel Ksepka, and curatorial associate Kate Dzikiewicz.
Centuriavis lioae was a member of the Phasianidae family that lived around 11.4 million years ago in Nebraska – but at the time the area was a savanna-like environment and not the state’s farmland current. The bird’s neighbors at the time were the prehistoric precursors of the rhinoceros and the camel, and its contemporary descendants include the grouse and turkeys.
The name Centuriavis means ‘bird of the century’ – and that’s a bit of paleontologist humor, as the fossil was collected almost a century ago in 1933 but was only recently identified as a species until recently. then unknown.
“It may be surprising that such a beautiful and nearly complete fossil could remain unstudied for nearly 100 years,” Ksepka said. “This is not unique – there are relatively few paleontologists in the world, and only a small percentage of these birds study. Many other important fossils are surely sitting in cupboards waiting to be studied or even still inside their plaster casings waiting to be freed from the rock.
In this case, the Centuriavis lioae fossil – which consisted of the bird’s head, neck and wing – had been in Bruce’s collection for years before it was recovered and studied. Kspeka hailed it as “absolutely one of the most magnificent fossils I have ever seen – it is so perfectly preserved. The neck is sort of laid down and the wing bones on one side are still attached. And on the other side, they’ve come off, so you can study them in 3D – it’s like posing for the camera.
Kspeka added that the preservation was miraculous because the fossils “are often crushed, or you’ll often only have a small percentage of the skeleton. In this case, we have the entire front half. There are no legs – for some reason the legs got lost – but we have the wings, the skull, the vertebrae and the shoulder bones. And he’s in very, very good condition for a bird because bird bones are very hollow.
Dzikiewicz added that after the bird was identified as a previously unknown species, the question arose of what to name it.
“We’ve been thinking about this bird’s name for years,” she said. “We went through a variety of different options, the pandemic happened and we decided it was time to release it.”
The announcement of Centuriavis lioae was made Oct. 17 in the Journal of Paleontology, with Dzikiewicz highlighting Lio’s work at the museum and her ability to perform complex tasks quickly and efficiently, adding that “she was one of our best friends at the museum.”
As for Lio, she considered the nomination “a complete honour” and considered herself to be “in the right place at the right time”. Lio also joked that sharing the news was complicated because “I have friends who still don’t know about this, and how do you bring it up in conversation?”
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