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

    Former US Envoys Urge Obama to Delay Troop Cuts in Afghanistan

    Keeping troop levels up during conflict with both Taliban and Islamic State is necessary to support Kabul government, they say

    First Lady to Visit Africa to Promote Girls' Education

    Michele Obama will be joined by daughters and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto

    Video NYSE Analyst: Brexit Will Continue to Place Pressure on Markets

    Despite orderly pricing and execution strategy at the New York Stock Exchange, analyst explains added pressure on world financial markets is likely

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora