Ducks, being birds with the ability to fly, have very light bones which don’t fossilize easily. This makes tracing the evolutionary history of ducks a more difficult job than that of researching flightless birds or terrestrial mammals. However, there is fossil evidence of duck-like species dating back to over 25 million years ago, and many scientists believe that they could have existed up to 35 million years ago. This period of time, the Oligocene, was when plains animals began to flourish, hooved animals such as camels and horses reached a similar point to how they are in the modern day, and the first felines showed up. The ancestors of humans were still in their infancy. So, to put it another way, ducks have been around for a while.
The oldest common ancestor to the modern duck is Vegavis, a waterfowl from about 60 million years ago. They might have been able to honk, but otherwise, they are so different from modern ducks that Vegavis is placed in its own group.
Ducks and geese are very closely related, but ducks have been around longer. A large difference between ducks and geese is their beak shapes. Ducks have bills that are ideal for filtering food from water, while geese have narrow hooked beaks for eating plants. Common ancestors for both ducks and geese have beaks while are wide and long, almost exactly the same as the bills of modern ducks.
Both ducks and geese are also dinosaurs. They are directly descended from theropods, which include dinosaurs like T. rex and Deinonychus. So the next time you hear a duck quack, think about how their ancestors roared. Overall, even more recent ancestors of ducks were much larger than they are today. One theory is that ducks have gotten smaller in order to eat finer particles of food in the water. It is also possible that they are just following the trend that most animals have gone through, moving from megafauna to smaller species. This is either due to oxygen being more sparse than it was in the past or warmer temperatures due to the end of the last ice age.
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If you’re interested in ducks, check out this blog post about modern-day ducks!
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