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'Bird Herd' brings prehistoric bird's footprint to WWU

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Bird Herders Sue Madsen, Dave Sonnen and Keith Kemplin prepare the slab for removal. | Photo by John Scurlock
The Diatryma's print is a foot long. | Photo by John Scurlock
Carried away by a a helicopter to a waiting truck, the Diatryma track is now on display in the WWU Geology Department. | Photo by John Scurlock
Big, but not scary: Diatryma, with stubby toes, might have devoured plants, not small animals. | Photo by AMNH Bulletin , No. 37, Article 11

While investigating a landslide in the Mount Baker foothills in Whatcom County, WWU faculty found a fossilized footprint of a prehistoric Diatryma, a 7-foot-tall, 380-pound flightless bird that lived in the Pacific Northwest 56 million years ago.

The 1,300-pound sandstone slab with the foot-long Diatryma track was later carefully lifted by helicopter to a nearby road and trucked to Western. It is now on display in the WWU Geology Department.

Keith Kemplin (’81), a Bellingham software writer and geology hobbyist, spotted the fossil in May 2009 while exploring a massive landslide in the Racehorse Creek area with WWU Geology Researcher George Mustoe (’71 and ’73), who immediately recognized its significance. Fellow Geology researcher David Tucker (’74 and ’04) soon convened a “Bird Herd” of people working together to protect the slab.

The newly found foot track sheds further light on the life of this giant bird. Diatryma is popularly portrayed as a ferocious predator, chasing down and devouring small mammals, including small ancestors of horses. But this track shows the prehistoric bird had only small, stubby, triangular claws on its toes, not the grasping talons typical of the carnivorous birds often shown in artists’ representations of Diatryma. The huge bird may have actually used its strong beak to crush tough leaves, and giantism is common in flightless birds with a vegetarian diet.

The new track is being compared to a larger, three-toed track found east of Auburn in 1992. Some scientists initially accepted this first find as a footprint of a Diatryma, while others believed that it might have been a psuedofossil or other artifact – or possibly even a hoax.

“Discovery of this amazing foot track is the first undoubted evidence that these birds existed here,” says Mustoe. “It’s quite a find.”