News / Science & Technology

Ancient Bird Had Largest Wingspan Ever

Dr. Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum, studies the skull of Pelagornis sandersi.  (Bruce Museum photo)
Dr. Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum, studies the skull of Pelagornis sandersi. (Bruce Museum photo)
Reuters

The wandering albatross, a magnificent seabird that navigates the ocean winds and can glide almost endlessly over the water, boasts the biggest wingspan of any bird alive today, extending almost 12 feet (3.5 meters).

But it is a mere pigeon compared to an astonishing extinct bird called Pelagornis sandersi, identified by scientists on Monday from fossils unearthed in South Carolina, that lived 25 to 28 million years ago and boasted the largest-known avian wingspan in history, about 20 to 24 feet (6.1 to 7.4 meters).

Size alone did not make it unique. It had a series of bony, tooth-like projections from its long jaws that helped it scoop up fish and squid along the eastern coast of North America.

"Anyone with a beating heart would have been struck with awe," said paleontologist Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This bird would have just blotted out the sun as it swooped overhead. Up close, it may have called to mind a dragon."

Line drawing of Pelagornis sandersi, showing comparative wingspan. Shown left, a California Condor, shown right, a Royal Albatross. Line art by Liz Bradford. (Bruce Museum)
Line drawing of Pelagornis sandersi, showing comparative wingspan. Shown left, a California Condor, shown right, a Royal Albatross. Line art by Liz Bradford. (Bruce Museum)

With its short, stumpy legs, it may not have been graceful on land, but its long, slender wings made it a highly efficient glider able to remain airborne for long stretches despite its size.

It belonged to an extinct group called pelagornithids that thrived from about 55 million years ago to three million years ago.

The last birds with teeth went extinct 65 million years ago in the same calamity that killed the dinosaurs.

But this group developed "pseudoteeth" to serve the same purpose. They lived on every continent including Antarctica.

"The cause of their extinction, however, is still shrouded in mystery," Ksepka said.

"All modern birds lack teeth, but early birds such as Archaeopteryx had teeth inherited from their non-bird, dinosaurian ancestors. So in this case the pelagornithids did not evolve new true teeth, which are in sockets, but rather were constrained by prior evolution to develop tooth-like projections of their jaw bones," said Paul Olsen, a Columbia University paleontologist who did not take part in the study.

Pelagornis sandersi (Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.)Pelagornis sandersi (Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.)
x
Pelagornis sandersi (Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.)
Pelagornis sandersi (Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.)

These birds lived very much like some of the pterosaurs, the extinct flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs that achieved the largest wingspans of any flying creatures, reaching about 36 feet (11 meters).

Its fossils were found in 1983 when construction workers were building a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport. Its skull is nearly complete and in great condition, and scientists also have important wing and leg bones, the shoulder blade and wishbone.

Until now, the birds with the largest-known wingspans were the slightly smaller condor-like Argentavis magnificens, which lived about six million years ago in Argentina, and another pelagornithid, Pelagornis chilensis, that lived in Chile at about the same time.

At about 48 to 90 pounds (22-40 kg), Pelagornis sandersi was far from the heaviest bird in history, with numerous extinct flightless birds far more massive.

You May Like

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid