The fossil record of the Anhingidae is rather dense, but very apomorphic already and appears to be lacking its base. The other families placed in the Phalacrocoraciformes sequentially appear throughout the Eocene, the most distinct – frigatebirds – being known since almost 50 Ma (million years ago) and probably of Paleocene origin. With fossil gannets being known since the mid-Eocene (c. 40 Ma) and fossil cormorants appearing soon thereafter, the origin of the darters as a distinct lineage was presumably around 50-40 Ma, maybe a bit earlier.
Fossil Anhingidae are known since the Early Miocene; a number of prehistoric darters similar to those still alive have been described, as well as some more distinct genera nowadays extinct. The diversity was highest in South America, and thus it is likely that the family originated there. Some of the genera which ultimately became extinct were very large, and a tendency to become flightless has been noted in prehistoric darters. Their distinctness has been doubted, but this was due to the supposed "Anhinga" fraileyi being rather similar to Macranhinga, rather than due to them resembling the living species:
- Meganhinga (Early Miocene of Chile)
- "Paranavis" (Middle/Late Miocene of Paraná, Argentina) – a nomen nudum
- Macranhinga (Middle/Late Miocene – Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of SC South America) – may include "Anhinga" fraileyi
- Giganhinga (Late Pliocene/Early Pleistocene of Uruguay)
Prehistoric members of Anhinga were presumably distributed in similar climates as today, ranging into Europe in the hotter and wetter Miocene. With their considerable stamina and continent-wide distribution abilities (as evidenced by the Anhinga and the Old World superspecies), the smaller lineage has survived for over 20 Ma. As evidenced by the fossil species' biogeography centered around the equator, with the younger species ranging eastwards out of the Americas, the Hadley cell seems to have been the main driver of the genus' success and survival:
- Anhinga subvolans (Early Miocene of Thomas Farm, USA) – formerly in Phalacrocorax
- Anhinga cf. grandis (Middle Miocene of Colombia –? Late Pliocene of SC South America)
- Anhinga sp. (Sajóvölgyi Middle Miocene of Mátraszõlõs, Hungary) – A. pannonica?
- "Anhinga" fraileyi (Late Miocene –? Early Pliocene of SC South America) – may belong in Macranhinga
- Anhinga pannonica (Late Miocene of C Europe ?and Tunisia, East Africa, Pakistan and Thailand –? Sahabi Early Pliocene of Libya)
- Anhinga minuta (Solimões Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of SC South America)
- Anhinga grandis (Late Miocene –? Late Pliocene of USA)
- Anhinga malagurala (Allingham Early Pliocene of Charters Towers, Australia)
- Anhinga sp. (Early Pliocene of Bone Valley, USA) – A. beckeri?
- Anhinga hadarensis (Late Pliocene/Early Pleistocene of E Africa)
- Anhinga beckeri (Early – Late Pleistocene of SE USA)
Protoplotus, a small Paleogene phalacrocoraciform from Sumatra, was in old times considered a primitive darter. However, it is also placed in its own family (Protoplotidae) and might be a basal member of the Sulae and/or close to the common ancestor of cormorants and darters.
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“A wellborn mind that is practiced in dealing with people makes itself thoroughly agreeable by itself. Art is nothing else but the list and record of the productions of such minds.”
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