The fossil record of cranes is far from complete, however, it appears that subfamilies related to cranes were distinct by the Late Eocene period (around 35 mya). The present genera are apparently some 20 mya old. Biogeography of known fossils and the living taxa of cranes suggests that the group is probably of (Laurasian) Old World origin. The extant diversity at the genus level is centred on (eastern) Africa, making it all the more regrettable that no decent fossil record exists from there. On the other hand, it is peculiar that numerous fossils of Ciconiiformes (Herons) are documented from there; these birds presumably shared much of their habitat with cranes at that time.
Fossil genera are tentatively assigned to the present-day subfamilies:
- Palaeogrus (Middle Eocene of Germany and Italy – Middle Miocene of France)
- Pliogrus (Early Pliocene of Eppelsheim, Germany)
- Camusia (Late Miocene of Menorca, Mediterranean)
- “Grus” conferta (Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of Contra Costa County, US)
Sometimes considered Balearicinae
Sometimes considered Gruidae incertae sedis
- Eobalearica (Ferghana Late Eocene of Ferghana, Uzbekistan)
- Probalearica (Late Oligocene – Middle Pliocene of Florida, US, France, Moldavia and Mongolia) – A nomen dubium?
- Aramornis (Sheep Creek Middle Miocene of Snake Creek Quarries, US)
The supposed Grus prentici is not a true crane; it was eventually placed in the genus Paragrus.