Paleontologists recently uncovered a bone fragment from a species of bony-toothed sea birds, called pelagornithids, that might be the largest flying bird ever discovered. Where an albatross has a wingspan of about 10-12 feet, those of the pelagornithid reached up to 20. The bird also had a terrifying saw-toothed jaw.
The find was noted in a new study, published yesterday in Scientific Reports. The study is the result of a multi-decade “fossil detective story” spanning California to Antarctica, wherein paleontologists have compared fossils from related birds and successfully identified the early history of these enormous soaring birds.
The scientists have researched avian fossils and bony-toothed birds from all around the world. University of California Berkeley Paleontologist Peter Kloess noted some particularly delicate bird bones—part of a jaw and foot from an ancient bird—found in Antarctica during the 1980s. These bones were eventually shipped to California, and part of a collection of over 10,000 fossils that were relocated to University of California Riverside.
Kloess later went to view the collection, then learned the story was bigger than he had originally thought. “I started this research project thinking it would be a short descriptive paper on a jaw fragment to add to the knowledge of a cool group of birds. I had no idea that it would represent a giant individual,” Kloess noted.
Kloess and his colleagues continued their search for bony-toothed bird fossils across other museum collections and stumbled upon a foot bone from another pelagornithid, which was estimated to be 50 million years old. This would put the bird’s existence around the Eocene period, which was life started picking up again after the large mass extinction event. The fossils suggest that the birds thrived in the Antarctic for millions of years.
Scientists believe the large wings of the birds would have allowed them to easily soar long distances, which is why their bones have been found scattered across the Earth from Antarctica up to South California. Their spiky jaws would have perfect for snatching up and dining on squid and fish just below the surface of the water.
The discovery of the bones and the newly-published study raises the question of whether there were even larger birds or flying creatures from the Eocene (or any other) era. But since ancient avian fossils are so rare, it is difficult to determine.