Scientist identifies world's biggest-ever flying bird

July 07, 2014

DURHAM, N.C. -- Scientists have identified the fossilized remains of an extinct giant bird that could be the biggest flying bird ever found. With an estimated 20-24-foot wingspan, the creature surpassed size estimates based on wing bones from the previous record holder -- a long-extinct bird named Argentavis magnificens -- and was twice as big as the Royal Albatross, the largest flying bird today. Scheduled to appear online the week of July 7, 2014, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings show that the creature was an extremely efficient glider, with long slender wings that helped it stay aloft despite its enormous size.

The new fossil was first unearthed in 1983 near Charleston, South Carolina, when construction workers began excavations for a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport. The specimen was so big they had to dig it out with a backhoe. "The upper wing bone alone was longer than my arm," said author Dan Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Now in the collections at the Charleston Museum, the strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull. Its sheer size and telltale beak allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony tooth-like spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws. Named 'Pelagornis sandersi' in honor of retired Charleston Museum curator Albert Sanders, who led the fossil's excavation, the bird lived 25 to 28 million years ago -- after the dinosaurs died out but long before the first humans arrived in the area.

Researchers have no doubt that P. sandersi flew. It's paper-thin hollow bones, stumpy legs and giant wings would have made it at home in the air but awkward on land. But because it exceeded what some mathematical models say is the maximum body size possible for flying birds, what was less clear was how it managed to take off and stay aloft despite its massive size.

To find out, Ksepka fed the fossil data into a computer program designed to predict flight performance given various estimates of mass, wingspan and wing shape. P. sandersi was probably too big to take off simply by flapping its wings and launching itself into the air from a standstill, analyses show. Like Argentavis, whose flight was described by a computer simulation study in 2007, P. sandersi may have gotten off the ground by running downhill into a headwind or taking advantage of air gusts to get aloft, much like a hang glider.

Once it was airborne, Ksepka's simulations suggest that the bird's long, slender wings made it an incredibly efficient glider. By riding on air currents that rise up from the ocean's surface, P. sandersi was able to soar for miles over the open ocean without flapping its wings, occasionally swooping down to the water to feed on soft-bodied prey like squid and eels.

"That's important in the ocean, where food is patchy," said Ksepka, who is now Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich Connecticut.

Researchers hope the find will help shed light on why the family of birds that P. sandersi belonged to eventually died out, and add to our understanding of how the giants of the skies managed to fly.
-end-
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB: 0949899) and by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NSF EF-0905606).

CITATION: Ksepka, D. (2014). "Flight performance of the largest volant bird." PNAS.

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is a nonprofit science center dedicated to cross-disciplinary research in evolution. Funded by the National Science Foundation, NESCent is jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. For more information about research and training opportunities at NESCent, visit http://www.nescent.org.

National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)

Related Bird Articles from Brightsurf:

Bird brains are surprisingly complex
Some birds can achieve extraordinary cognitive performance - but their brains were considered to be rather disorganized compared to those of mammals.

Bird genes are multitaskers, say scientists
Scientists from the University of Sheffield have found that although male and female birds have an almost identical set of genes, they function differently in each sex through a mechanism called alternative splicing.

Wildfires cause bird songs to change
A new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances suggests that wildfires change the types of songs sung by birds living in nearby forests.

Bird feeding helps females more than males
A new study from Lund University in Sweden shows that female birds benefit more from extra food in the winter.

APS tip sheet: Using bird song to determine bird size
An analysis of a bird species' unique rasps shows how sound fluctuations in birds' songs might reveal details about birds' body sizes.

Bird bacteria is key to communication and mating
Birds use odor to identify other birds, and researchers at Michigan State University have shown that if the bacteria that produce the odor is altered, it could negatively impact a bird's ability to communicate with other birds or find a mate.

Bird droppings defy expectations
Prevailing wisdom ranks uric acid as the primary ingredient in bird 'poop,' which is comprised mostly of urine.

NZ big bird a whopping 'squawkzilla'
Australasian palaeontologists have discovered the world's largest parrot, standing up to 1m tall with a massive beak able to crack most food sources.

The bird that came back from the dead
New research has shown that the last surviving flightless species of bird, a type of rail, in the Indian Ocean had previously gone extinct but rose from the dead thanks to a rare process called 'iterative evolution'.

New cryptic bird species discovered
Through persistent detective work and advances in genetic sequencing technology, Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science researchers have discovered a new species of bird on Borneo -- the Cream-eyed Bulbul, or Pycnonotus pseudosimplex.

Read More: Bird News and Bird Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.