The newly analyzed fossils from Antarctica may represent an extinct species of giant birds with a wingspan of more than 20 feet.
In comparison, the largest bird of modern times, the wandering albatross, has a wingspan of only 11 feet and 6 inches.
Named for the pelagornithids, ancient birds circled over Earth’s oceans more than 40 million years ago.
Researchers examining the fossil foot bone and part of the preserved jaw determined that the species lived longer than assumed and was larger than the largest known recorded birds – the fossils were discovered in the 1980s but not examined for decades.
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A 50-million-year-old fossil of a foot bone of a pelagornithid, a member of an extinct group of giant birds. Bird predators patrolled the oceans with wingspan up to 21 feet, dwarfing the birds’ 11-foot wingspan for today’s largest bird, the wandering albatross
They were part of a group of specimens collected by paleontologists at the University of California on Seymour Island, off the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, in the mid-1980s.
Peter Kloss discovered the fossils for the first time in 2015, when he arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. Candidate in Integrative Biology.
“I like going to groups and looking for treasures there,” Kloss said. Someone called me a museum mouse, and I take it as a badge of honor. I like wandering around, and finding things that people overlook.
Reviewing the original notes, Kloess identified a foot bone fossil, known as a tarsometatarsus, that was much older than originally thought – about 50 million years ago instead of 40 million.
The pelagornithid (center) rose above Earth’s oceans more than 40 million years ago. With a wingspan of more than 20 feet, it may be the largest flying bird ever
Intact section of the lower jaw of Bellagornethead about 40 million years ago. The bony protrusions on the jaw, known as pseudomonas, would have been up to an inch high when the bird was alive and its skull was two feet long.
During that period, known as the Eocene, Antarctica had a warmer climate and was home to many mammals and birds, including early relatives of sloths, ostriches, and penguins.
Pelagornithids have been part of this ecosystem for more than 10 million years, according to a study published Monday in Scientific Reports.
The birds, which have a wingspan of 21 feet, are believed to be flying over the ocean for weeks at a time.
In a lifestyle likely to resemble living albatrosses, the extinct giant pelagornithides, with their extremely long wings, could have flown widely over ancient open seas, yet not dominated by whales and seals, in search of squid and fish, said co-author Thomas Stedham of the Institute. Vertebrate fossils and ancient anthropology in Beijing: “ And other seafood.
Its size puts it at the upper end of the size a bird can reach and still fly, according to Smithsonian MagazineWhich makes it a good candidate for the largest birds ever to descend from the ground.
Pelagornithids are often known as “ bony-toothed ” birds, but in reality, their pseudo-fingernail behavior helps them wrest squids and fish out of the water
The fossil of the younger pelagornithid dates back 62 million years, but the foot fossil indicates that this larger species arose after life recovered from the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
“The sheer and colossal size of these extinct birds is unmatched in the ocean’s habitats,” said co-author Ashley Post of the San Diego Museum of Natural History.
The last known pelagornithid dates back to 2.5 million years ago, when the Ice Age began on Earth.
Because of the sharp protrusions on their jaws, pelagornithids are often known as “bone-toothed” birds.
In fact, the burrs, known as pseudoteeth, didn’t help with chewing – they were more like fingernails, helping birds wrest squid and fish out of the water.
Pseudomonas on the lower jaw that Kloss and colleagues examined dates back about 40 million years.
It could have reached an inch in height when the bird was alive, and its skull could be up to two feet long.
“These bony-toothed birds were formidable predators that evolved to be on top of their ecosystem,” said Stedham.
According to Kloss, the new discoveries show that “birds evolved to a really tremendous size relatively quickly after the extinction of dinosaurs and ruled the oceans for millions of years.”