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Prehistoric ninja bird evolved nunchuck-like wings

Scientists have discovered a prehistoric flightless bird whose wings evolved into massive curved weapons.

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He recalled that ornithologist Storrs Olson at the Smithsonian Institution "had told me, 'the hand is shaped like a banana,' and I assumed he was exaggerating, and then I saw them and I thought, 'Wow. The hand is shaped like a banana.'"

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"It was really a challenge figuring out what these wings might be for," Longrich added. "We threw around all kinds of ideas — that the bird used the wings for climbing, or for digging, or even that the bird moved on all fours and it used the wings to help it walk. They were just so bizarre, we had no comparison, so no idea was too weird to rule out. I hit on the idea that they were weapons because it was the least strange idea. Although no other bird has wings like this, a lot of birds do use the wings as weapons — swans, geese, plovers, jacanas, screamers and so forth."

Modern ibises are highly territorial during nesting and feeding and often fight, suggesting the clubs of these extinct birds were probably used against other members of their species. Indeed, some living ibises are known to grasp their opponents with their beaks and then strike with their wings. On the other hand, they might have been used to defend their nests and young from the many predators on the tropical Caribbean island, such as snakes, monkeys and hawks.

Although these ibises are the first creatures with a backbone known to have modified their limbs into clubs, they are not the first animals known to have done so. For instance, some mantis shrimps have club-like appendages they use to strike prey and members of their own species.

One interesting detail about these ibis wings is that there appears to be no variation in them between the sexes. "Males and females alike would have had them," Longrich said. "So, if they were using them in territorial battles, males and females might be working together to defend a territory, instead of just the male fighting."

Longrich and Olson detailed their findings online Jan. 4 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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