The fossilized remains of an extinct giant bird with a wingspan of 24 feet place the creature above theoretical upper limits for powered flight in animals, leaving scientists to wonder how the enormous bird managed to take to the air. Named Pelagornis sandersi, the new species was more than twice as big as the Royal Albatross, the largest flying bird alive today.
Daniel Ksepka (pictured), the author of a study describing the bird in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the fossilized remains were very well-preserved, a rarity because of the paper-thin nature of the bones in birds. The strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull.
The fossil was discovered when excavations began for a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina. The presence of bony tooth-like spikes in the jaw allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of the Pelagornithidae, an extinct group of giant seabirds.
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. The analyses showed P. sandersi was probably too big to take off simply by flapping its wings and launching itself into the air from a standstill. The study speculates that 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.
“These giant birds occurred all over the globe for tens of millions of years, but vanished during the Pliocene, just three million years ago,” said Ksepka, who hopes the find will shed light on why the family of birds that P. sandersi belonged to eventually died out.
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