Messelornithids are one of the best represented bird species in the fossil record. We have hundreds of preserved specimens, many of them preserving the full body and even details like stomach contents. Yet they seem to be inexplicably unpopular. Not only are they missing from the Ark Encounter’s list of extinct bird kinds, but I also couldn’t find any popular science or encyclopedia articles on these birds. Many less common fossil birds have detailed Wikipedia pages, but the two genuses in Messelornithidae each have only single sentence entries.

To find any information you have to go to scholarly sources, where Messelornithids are well represented. A number of the articles are in German because most of the fossils are found in Messel, Germany. Many of the articles are describing new fossil finds and comparing them to other fossils, which means a lot of discussion on subtle differences in the shapes of bones. There’s also a lot of discussion about how closely related they are to sunbitterns, which are a family of birds that still exist in South America. And because there are some preserved stomach contents there is much discussion about their omnivorous diet. One article notes that the fossils show ossified tendons in the legs – a sign that the birds may have spent a lot of time running. Most birds that run don’t fly very much, so they were probably largely ground dwelling.

What I didn’t find was any argument that Messelornithidae was not a distinct family. With over 500 specimens and many of them remarkably complete, these birds are well known and well studied. I see no reason not to include them on the Ark list. So I assume their lack is just another oversight.

Cover image by Ghedoghedo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,