Boasting a 17-foot (5.2-meter) wingspan and sharp, spiny "pseudoteeth," this ancient seabird is one of the largest flying birds known, according to a study released Wednesday.
Soaring above the oceans and mountains of what's now Chile between five and ten million years ago, the newly discovered species, named Pelagornis chilensis, was part of a prehistoric group known as the bony-toothed birds. The hollow spikes on the birds' beaks allowed the predators to grab slippery squid and fish from the ocean.
P. chilensis was identified based on an "exquisitely and exceptionally preserved" fossil skeleton that was found to be 70 percent complete, said study co-author David Rubilar of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Chile.
The specimen includes the largest and most complete fossil bird wing yet excavated. Previous bony-toothed bird fossils included wings dug up in pieces, if it all, making it harder to accurately establish wingspan.
Seen in an artist's rendering of its standing skeleton, P. chilensis resembles a modern albatross—except that the new species stood about 4 feet (1.25 meters) tall. (See an albatross picture.)
Because the two birds are structurally similar, studying a modern albatross's lifestyle is an excellent way to learn more about what the prehistoric seabird's daily life might have been like, Rubilar said.
In general, bony-toothed birds aren't well understood, because they had incredibly lightweight bones, which were often too brittle to withstand the fossilization process. But the P. chilensis specimen was discovered largely intact in a fine sandstone in northern Chile, Rubilar said.
And more such fossils may be coming, he added. "The fossils in this [sandstone layer] are abundant. ... Probably we'll find more and more complete specimens in the future."
Illustration courtesy Carlos Anzures
Sawtooth Seabird Skull
A picture of the fossil skull of P. chilensis reveals a beak lined with pseudoteeth.
Bony-toothed birds didn't chew their prey but used the false teeth to snatch fish and squid from the water's surface before swallowing them whole, said Estelle Bourdon, a researcher with the American Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the study.
The birds, which scanned seas worldwide for more than 50 million years, likely went extinct about 2.5 million years ago, near the end of the Pliocene epoch, Bourdon said. (See a prehistoric time line.)
Although the giant seabirds "would have looked like creatures from Jurassic Park," they're true birds and not flying reptiles, lead author Gerald Mayr, of the Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg in Germany, said in a statement. In fact, he added, it's possible some of the last living members of P. chilensis existed at the same time as the earliest human ancestors in North Africa.
Photograph courtesy S. Tränkner, Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg
Giant Wingspan, Giant Glider
The giant seabird P. chilensis was probably a glider, not a flapper, researchers say. Above, an artist's rendering shows the bird's skeleton and life reconstructions as the species would have appeared in flight.
The shape of the species' arm bones shows that P. chilensis couldn't rotate its wings to flap and provide lift, Rubilar said. Instead, the seabird "just opened its arms" and—like modern Andean condors—caught updrafts rising from the Andes to become airborne and stay aloft for miles.
Modern albatrosses, the largest of which are about two-thirds the size of P. chilensis, can travel hundreds of miles without flapping.
Illustration courtesy Carlos Anzures
Seabird Seen From Above
An artist's rendering shows what the skeleton of P. chilensis would have looked like in flight when seen from above. The well-preserved fossil has given researchers incontrovertible proof of the ancient bird's wingspan.