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

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
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 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.

AppleAndroid