A newly declared species may be the largest flying bird to ever live
An artist’s drawing of the newly named species Pelagornis sandersi shows the discovered bone fragments in white. The strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull. (Liz Bradford)
By Rachel Feltman July 7 at 6:58 PM
When South Carolina construction workers came across the giant, winged fossil at the Charleston airport in 1983, they had to use a backhoe to pull the bird, which lived about 25 million years ago, up from the earth.
But if the bird was actually a brand-new species, researchers faced a big question: Could such a large bird, with a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, actually get off the ground? After all, the larger the bird, the less likely its wings are able to lift it unaided.
The answer came from Dan Ksepka, paleontologist and science curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.
He modeled a probable method of flight for the long-extinct bird, named as a new species this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If Ksepka’s simulations are correct, Pelagornis sandersi would be the largest airborne bird ever discovered.
Pelagornis sandersi relied on the ocean to keep it aloft. Similar in many ways to a modern-day albatross — although with at least twice the wingspan and very different in appearance, Ksepka said — the bird probably needed a lot of help to fly. It had to run downhill into a head wind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents rising from the ocean to keep it gliding.
Paleontologist Dan Ksepka examines the fossilized skull of what may be the biggest flying bird ever found. Its telltale beak allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony, toothlike spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws. (Courtesy of Dan Ksepka)
Like the albatross, Pelagornis sandersi spent much of its time over water.
“It was a bit warmer 25 million years ago,” Ksepka said, “and the sea level was higher. So even though the Charleston airport, where the fossil was found, is on dry land today, it used to be an ocean.”