World's largest-ever flying bird identified

Jul 07, 2014
A reconstruction of the world's largest-ever flying bird, Pelagornis sandersi, identified by Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. Credit: Liz Bradford

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.

Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT, studies the skull of Pelagornis sandersi, the world's largest-ever flying bird. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Ksepka

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.

A line drawing of the world's largest-ever flying bird, Pelagornis sandersi, showing comparative wingspan. Shown left, a California condor, shown right, a Royal albatross. Credit: Liz Bradford.

"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.

Explore further: Ancient seabird discovery suggests Paleogene bird diversification

More information: "Flight performance of the largest volant bird," by Daniel T. Ksepka , PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1320297111

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User comments : 23

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LariAnn
4.8 / 5 (4) Jul 07, 2014
Running downhill to get aloft may have worked on land, but when swooping down to the ocean surface to get food, what would this bird do to get back up in the air from that low position? It must have had some flapping-flight capability or it would have ended up in the water with no way to get aloft again. An alternative view is that, with all those teeth, perhaps it preyed on other smaller gliding birds, enabling it to remain aloft while feeding.
rodrigobraganca
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 07, 2014
I just didn't understand why the imperial system was used instead of metric system.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2014
7 meters wide!

"That's important in the ocean, where food is patchy,".

Of course! So that is why these glider sea birds grow so large, like polar bears et cetera in a nutrient patchy arctic landscape.

@LariAnn: Like albatrosses, running on water, but into gusts. No difference from land starts. [ https://www.youtu...mNC4yhvU ]

@rodrigobranca: It is nationalistic bigotry. Browsers can do the translation for minority groups like US citizens...
antigoracle
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 07, 2014
The world was significantly warmer when this bird soared.
someone11235813
not rated yet Jul 07, 2014
Wouldn't swooping down to catch food in the open ocean be a bit dangerous for a bird that would not be able to take off from the water? Then again, maybe that's why they died out.

edit: oh I see that's already been covered.
winthrom
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2014
The size of the wingspan is similar to the dutch experiment found on YouTube at:
http://www.youtub...ccjjtLRg
This experimenter used batteries and motors to flap the wings, but the take-off is strictly from running. A lighter floating bird with albatross (into the wind) type take-off would be able to take off from the water or land running into the wind on webbed feet and flapping its' own wings as seen in the video. Also, some sea birds gain altitude, power dive, level off skimming the water, and use their beaks to capture prey like a harpoon. There is little loss of momentum so the bird can convert momentum into altitude again, with the captured prey. Thereafter the powered glider principals (wing muscles) are used to slowly gain enough altitude to get home to a nest.
Lex Talonis
1.9 / 5 (9) Jul 08, 2014
Dear stupid Merikens - today is metric day....

"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,"

Doug_Huffman
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 08, 2014
Dear correspondents, today is bigotry day. Some learn to converse in whatever metric is appropriate to the conversational province, provincials, parochial, do not.
TechnoCreed
3.9 / 5 (7) Jul 08, 2014
Dear stupid Merikens - today is metric day....
Dear readers, here is the proof that homo erectus still exist; notice the typical chest-thumping.
rockwolf1000
3.3 / 5 (7) Jul 08, 2014
I just didn't understand why the imperial system was used instead of metric system.


They did it to make you feel stupid. It worked apparently. I don't understand why your grammar is so poor.

"@rodrigobranca: It is nationalistic bigotry. Browsers can do the translation for minority groups like US citizens..."

As far as English speaking countries go the U.S. is the largest so your claim that U.S. citizens are a minority group is false and they are simply catering to the largest market, which makes perfect business sense.
http://en.wikiped...pulation
There are many conversion apps for smart phones for people too ignorant or stupid to figure it out also.

The metric system is hobbled by it's cumbersome 4 syllable terms.

Why people have such difficulty using both systems is a mystery to me. It's quite simple actually.

Here, I'll show you.
1 inch = 2.54 cm
1 foot = 12 inches
1 yard = 3 feet
The rest is simple arithmetic
BSD
2.4 / 5 (8) Jul 08, 2014
As far as English speaking countries go the U.S. is the largest so your claim that U.S. citizens are a minority group is false and they are simply catering to the largest market, which makes perfect business sense.


It's nothing to do with business sense, this is a science forum. Science is measured in SI. Your argument is nonsense.

There are many conversion apps for smart phones for people too ignorant or stupid to figure it out also.


There are also conversion apps for Americans too ignorant or stupid to learn Metric.

The metric system is hobbled by it's cumbersome 4 syllable terms.


What? So anything more than 3 syllables is beyond your comprehension?

Why people have such difficulty using both systems is a mystery to me. It's quite simple actually.


Why Americans can't cope with learning a system that every other country uses on the planet is a mystery to me. It's more politics isn't it?

Imperial is archaic, irrelevant nonsense I neither use or need.
BSD
2.8 / 5 (5) Jul 08, 2014
The metric system is hobbled by it's cumbersome 4 syllable terms.


The Imperial system is hobbled by arbitrary, nonsensical units.

The other joke is the decimalisation of Imperial. That makes a useless, pointless system even more so.
cjn
4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 08, 2014
The metric system is hobbled by it's cumbersome 4 syllable terms.


The Imperial system is hobbled by arbitrary, nonsensical units.

The other joke is the decimalisation of Imperial. That makes a useless, pointless system even more so.


I don't care either way, but lets not pretend that the metric system is any less arbitrary:
A meter equals "the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second."
rockwolf1000
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 08, 2014

It's nothing to do with business sense, this is a science forum. Science is measured in SI. Your argument is nonsense.


No this is a website based business. They can do as they please.

There are also conversion apps for Americans too ignorant or stupid to learn Metric.

Why should they? They're getting along just fine with Imperial.

What? So anything more than 3 syllables is beyond your comprehension?

If you read my posts then obviously no. But when working with units all day it's simply more efficient to use single syllable words.

Why Americans can't cope with learning a system that every other country uses on the planet is a mystery to me. It's more politics isn't it?

Again, why should they?

Imperial is archaic, irrelevant nonsense I neither use or need.

Manufacturing, even in Canada while officially Metric is essentially in Imperial as raw materials (steel/lumber) is still sold in Imperial units. Most machinists have imperial measuring tools
rockwolf1000
4.3 / 5 (7) Jul 08, 2014
"Manufacturing, even in Canada while officially Metric is essentially in Imperial as raw materials (steel/lumber) is still sold in Imperial units. Most machinists have imperial measuring tools."

This will not change anytime soon. There's still tons of old machinery still in use that uses Imperial for movements and as I said many tradesmen have Imperial measuring and cutting tools. Thus when a blueprint arrives fresh from engineering to the shop in Metric, it is normally converted to Imperial units by the worker to comply with his tools. Many drawings that arrive as Metric are actually Imperial drawings converted to Metric.

Thus when I see 25.4mm I know it's actually 1 inch, or 50.8mm is 2 inches. So although you falsely claim the rest of the world is using metric exclusively I have shown this not to be the case. Steels mills throughout the world produce material in nominally Imperial sizes.

A standard apology will suffice BSD = Big Stupid Dumbass
Uncle Ira
4.2 / 5 (10) Jul 08, 2014
@ Rockwolf-Skippy. I agree it is not the big problem going from one to the other. I am the engineer on the tow/push boats me. Up until about a year ago every boat I work on had the EDM engines (big two stroke diesel) in her, they use the inches Imperial numbers. Last year we got the new boat I was picked to work on with the M.A.N. engines (really big four stroke diesel) in her, they are German and use only metrics. It didn't take more that a few hours to get where I was comfortable with that. Now it don't matter which you say. You say something in inches, that's what I see in my head. You say something in the cm or mm or even the meters, that's what I see in my head. Sort like if you say foot, I see a foot or you say inch, I see an inch. Changing between inches and cm's, ain't no different from changing between feets and yards or inches. Just get used to thinking what that word is saying.
Dr_toad
Jul 08, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
BSD
2 / 5 (4) Jul 09, 2014
"Manufacturing, even in Canada while officially Metric is essentially in Imperial as raw materials (steel/lumber) is still sold in Imperial units. Most machinists have imperial measuring tools."

Science is in SI, it's all that matters. I could not give a shit what US machinists do you dickwad.

Imperial is just arbitrary irrelevance that came from mother England.
Uncle Ira
3.5 / 5 (6) Jul 09, 2014
@ BSD-Skippy I do not understand why it is the big deal to you. If someone say to you centimeter what you see in your head? This little bit like so. If that same somebody say to you millimeter what you see in your head? This other little little bit like so. Then they turn around just to be unruly and say something is the meter, and in your head you see something like so. You don't do all the ciphering by the 100's and 10's, you just see it in your head because you got that picture of what he looks like.

Same the English unit numbers, say the inch and in your head you see this. Say the yard, you see this much. Say the mile, you see about this much in your head. So when you are just talking about things on the physorg commentary section, it don't matter what you use, it is just words to help you picture in your head what they are talking about, huh? It is not like a little here or a little there is going to throw off the picture in your head when you just talking casual like.
rockwolf1000
4 / 5 (4) Jul 09, 2014
"Manufacturing, even in Canada while officially Metric is essentially in Imperial as raw materials (steel/lumber) is still sold in Imperial units. Most machinists have imperial measuring tools."

Science is in SI, it's all that matters. I could not give a shit what US machinists do you dickwad.

Imperial is just arbitrary irrelevance that came from mother England.


I wasn't talking about US machinists you illiterate caulk soccer. I'm talking about Canadian machinists you effing simpleton. Pay attention or learn to read. Or both.

Nothing about Imperial is any more arbitrary than metric. It was a system of standards based on nature. i.e. the width of a King's thumb or length of his foot.

If you actually knew half of what you thought you knew you'd be pretty smart.

But, obviously that's not the case.

Do a bit of research retard. You'll find that "Imperial" system has it's roots in the Roman Empire you god damn dormant idiot.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jul 09, 2014
Getting off-topic, but I've just run into some of the quirks of metric vs imperial.

Camera tripods & ports come as ¼ x 20 UNC and 3/8 x 16 UNC, ie 'coarse', rather than UNF 'fine'. Then there's very similar UK imperial or Whitworth sizes which would fit those threads *once* but seize in place due to different thread profiles...

Metric's easy, innit ? If you want a hole to just pass an M8 x 50 (mm), then an 8mm drill will suffice. But, dig a little deeper and your head begins to spin...

Let's not get hung up on wall bolts, whose eg 'M10' label means you drill a 10mm hole, though the bolt that does the fixing is an M8...

http://www.boltde...rmation/
http://www.thomso...olts.pdf

Metric 6 and above come in 'standard' and 'fine' threads, while Metric 10 has a 'superfine', too. IIRC, saying 'M6' or 'M10' implies the 'standard' thread...

Remember to fit the thin jam-nut before the main one...
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 09, 2014
It's nothing to do with business sense, this is a science forum. Science is measured in SI. Your argument is nonsense
@BSD
if this were a peer reviewed study, your claim might have some validity, but this is a popular science site, likely American, and the workers/posts are also likely American, so it IS a business issue. An American company catering to English speaking (predominantly American) public by providing science articles for perusal and comment. IOW -your argument is invalid, along with your justifications in this post
Imperial is archaic, irrelevant nonsense I neither use or need
so? if you don't like it, you can always go away. no one forcing you to read it
. I could not give a shit what US machinists do you dickwad
and we really don't care about your preferences, either. don't ask, don't tell... so prostitute yourself elsewhere

http://www.sciencex.info/

they are from VERMONT
nuff said?

you can always go away
WE DON'T MIND
gale_langseth
not rated yet Jul 14, 2014
...to which Pelagornis sandersi would likely say, 'C-c-caw?!'
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (3) Jul 14, 2014
Getting off-topic, but I've just run into some of the quirks of metric vs imperial
@Nik_2213
relevant/valid IMHO.

the METRIC system IS MUCH EASIER when transferring measurements within the system (metric)... breaking down how many MM are in a KM, for instance?
BUT the measurement is based upon an arbitrary known distance of light...

What it really boils down to is MONEY... not logic or science or anything else.
it costs MONEY to transfer everything over from one system to another
Britian used BOTH systems for years
the US teaches BOTH systems now (at least, they did when I was in school... but I went to DODDS so there might be a HUGE difference there)

to change NOW would cost far too much money, from infrastructure, signs, etc to manufacturing.
give it time, metric advocates
you can always go away
@BSD
Sincere apologies for the hostility
in science, it is metric... BUT this is NOT science, it is an article
and American
forgive them