Sooke family finds fossil of prehistoric diving bird

When paleontologist Gary Kaiser encountered the fossil bone from a previously unknown penguin-like bird discovered by a Sooke family, he reached into a local First Nations dictionary to name it.

Kaiser, a research associate at the Royal B.C. Museum with a special interest in birds both modern and prehistoric, said he named the flightless bird Stemec suntoku.

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It’s the first prehistoric bird to be discovered and named in B.C. since 1895.

The name is derived from the language of the T’Sou-Ke people, who live near Sooke, and means something like “long-necked, black waterbird.”

“I wanted a First Nations word,” Kaiser said.

“I’m a little tired of all these 20-syllable Greek and Latin words that so many people use.”

A father, daughter and son were out for a stroll two years ago when the daughter spotted the fossilized collarbone of the bird in a slab of rock that had fallen from nearby cliffs, Kaiser said.

Her brother carried the slab off the beach and the father turned it over to the Royal B.C. Museum, where it came into Kaiser’s hands.

He said the animal was something like a penguin. But many scientists believe it to have been more closely related to cormorants. These are black, diving sea birds, three species of which can be seen around Victoria: the Brandt’s, the double crested and the pelagic cormorant.

Paleontologists even now disagree on whether the prehistoric creature, identified as a new species of the plotopterid family, was a penguin or a cormorant.

Giving it a First Nations name for cormorant plays a little into an ongoing scientific discussion.

“One guy will say the inner part of the skull looks like a penguin and the other guy says the leg bone looks like a cormorant, and they argue about it,” Kaiser said. “There’s no resolution.”

He said the Stemec lived about 23 million years ago, diving and catching fish. Other birds of the same family are enormous, giants two metres tall.

But this Stemec is considerably smaller. The collarbone fossil discovered in Sooke is only about eight centimetres long and about the thickness of a pencil. Relatives of the bird have been found in Japan and in California.

Kaiser said the bird became extinct in a geological time when the oceans were rising and warming.

So the bird’s food supply might have been disrupted. Sea lions were also moving into the North Pacific and might have eaten them or out-competed them for areas to lay their eggs.

“It’s an odd situation and we just don’t know why they disappeared,” Kaiser said.

“We’ll probably never know.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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