Articles
Ancient Big Bird

Published November 10, 2014

 

Today's biggest flier, the royal albatross, wouldn't have looked so big compared to the Pelagornis sandersi, a giant flying seabird that lived some 25 million years ago and belonged to a family of now extinct "toothed" birds.

 

The ancient bird's fossil bones were uncovered just outside an airport in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1983. Paleontologists recently analyzed the fossils, which had been sitting in a museum drawer for decades, and revealed the bird as having a 21-foot (6.4-meter) wingspan. By comparison, the royal albatross measures 11.5 feet (3.5 meters).

 

Pelagornis comes close to the largest flying bird in history, the South American condor, which had a 23-foot (7-meter) wingspan and glided among the mountaintops of the Andes six million years ago.

 

However, paleontologists believe that the ancient seabird was lighter—weighing 48 pounds (21.8 kilograms)—and a better flier than the ancient condor. Still, a running take off on the water would have been unlikely for a bird of this size.

 

"I think they just waited on the beach for a strong wind to carry them aloft," says Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut.

 

The study also found that the ancient bird may have soared just above the ocean waves for long distances, rather than ascending air currents to maintain high altitudes, as some large birds do today.

Weird But True

 

The coastal South Carolina location where the Pelagornis sandersi bones were found was covered by more than 33 feet (10 meters) of ocean water 25 million years ago.

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By Dan Vergano, National Geographic News

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