By ADAM BURNS, Local Democracy Reporter

Rare ancient marine bird fossils, which are believed to date back more than 50 million years, are set to be pursued by a team of palaeontologists from the bed of a North Canterbury River.

The research team led by University of Canterbury Research Fellow Dr Vanesa De Pietri believe sediments from the Upper Waipara River hold marine bird fossils, dating back to the Paleocene epoch of 56 to 66 millions years ago.

There are hopes that the fossils will be a breakthrough for understanding of the evolutionary processes that drove the diversification of modern birds following a mass extinction event about 66 million years ago

The three year investigation, funded by a $925,000 Marsden Fund Te Putea Rangahau grant, is set to begin in April.

Fossils dating back to this era have been described by experts as rare and often fragmentary.

some of the earliest representatives of certain seabird lineages,Pietri said.

River fossil specimens is that they are often well-preserved and reasonably complete, so we have this opportunity to develop a comprehensive record of early marine birds that spans several million years following the extinction event.

She said the extinction of archaic birds, triggered by an asteroid impact, led to the development of modern birds the world sees today.

The upper reaches of the 40km Waipara River contains several historically and scientifically important sites and is renowned for its geological components.

Mannering’s penguin, considered the oldest penguin fossil known and believed to date back 62 million years, was found in the Waipara Greensand back in 1996.

The researchers are wanting to compile and study new specimens and compare with other relevant extinct and living species to build an understanding of how modern birds evolved.