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
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 3 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
"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
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
[to top of second column]
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 6 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.
(Story has been refiled to restore dropped letter in species name,
sandersi instead of sanders, paragraphs 2, 12)
(Editing by Jim Loney and Grant McCool)
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