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Skeletal reconstruction of Pelagornis sandersi with a California Condor (lower left) and Royal Albatross (lower right) for scale.

The largest seabird ever found (skeletal reconstruction, top) dwarfs a California condor (left) and royal albatross (right).

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF LIZ BRADFORD

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published July 7, 2014

Soaring above the world's oceans some 25 million years ago, the largest seabird ever to fly boasted a 21-foot (6.4-meter) wingspan, paleontologists reported Monday.

The ancient bird, dubbed Pelagornis sandersi, belonged to a family of now-extinct "toothed" birds.

The discovery also shows that, for some ancient flying birds, bigger may have been better. (Related: "Largest Flying Bird Could Barely Get Off Ground, Fossils Show.")

Described for the first time in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the fossil bones of the big bird were uncovered just outside an airport in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1983.

"A giant bird lands at an airport 25 million years too soon—it's kind of amusing," says study author Daniel Ksepka of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Maybe he should have just waited and landed on the new runway."

Birds of a Feather

The wingspan of Pelagornis sandersi dwarfs that of today's biggest flier, the royal albatross, whose span measures a "mere" 11.5 feet (3.5 meters). And it rivals that of the largest flying bird on record: Argentavis magnificensa South American condor with a 23-foot (7-meter) wingspan that glided among the mountaintops of the Andes six million years ago.

"Pelagornis was certainly much lighter and a better 'flier'" than the vanished giant condor, says paleontologist Antoine Louchart of France's Institute of Functional Genomics in Lyon, who was not involved with the study.

The most interesting finding in the new study, says Louchart, is that the ancient seabird may have soared just above the ocean waves for long distances, rather than ascending air currents to maintain high altitudes, as some large birds do today.

A model of Pelagornis sandersi's flight suggests that larger wings actually meant less drag from wingtip turbulence once the flier was aloft. The challenge for this seabird would have come during takeoff.

At 48 pounds (21.8 kilograms), Pelagornis sandersi was not as heavy as a flightless ostrich—which can weigh 320 pounds (145 kilograms)—but it was still likely too heavy (and had feet too tiny) to run on the water and take off like a goose or other waterfowl. (Related: "Giant Prehistoric Bird Crushed Seeds, Not Little Horses.")

"I think they just waited on the beach for a strong wind to carry them aloft," Ksepka says.

Ancient Oceans

More than 33 feet (10 meters) of ocean water covered the part of coastal South Carolina where the Pelagornis sandersi bones came to rest 25 million years ago. The bird's name honors Charleston Museum curator Albert Sanders, who uncovered the skull, wing, and leg bones of the ancient seabird ahead of runway construction three decades ago.

Ksepka says Sanders, an expert on ancient whales, "showed the bones to me in a drawer," where they awaited analysis for decades.

The so-called teeth of the bird were actually bony projections from its beak—good for spearing prey, which may have included other birds or other birds' prey.

Such "toothed" birds thrived from 55 million to 3 million years ago, before becoming extinct for reasons unknown.

"I would have loved to see one of them flying today," Ksepka says.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

23 comments
hai on
hai on

I love reading about such the sizes of these animals. Off the subject but similar wing span is measured on a manta ray with 23ft wing span.  that is ridiculous.

tamanna tasneem
tamanna tasneem

I would've love to see them flying today... 21 feet wingspan must be pretty impressive!!!

Ashok Manvati
Ashok Manvati

BIGGER THAN MODERN SMALL PLANE ??? WONDERFUL

Cong Yuan
Cong Yuan

impressive!!!how wonderful our world is

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

"what a perfect day to enjoy a picnic at the beach, i hope this pesky seagulls don't show up. wait a sec... whats that over there...."

Danny de Mooy
Danny de Mooy

what a incredible world it must be back then, wish i cold just go and walk for 1 day back in time to see al those great animals that lived there.instead of looking at their fossils wondering what the look and how the lived :)

Maas WEERABANGSA
Maas WEERABANGSA

This is really incredible !  May be this bird was able to perch on nearby tree beside the waterway/sea. Thus all it had to do would have been to take off from the high perch of the tree to start its flight. We must not forget that trees at that time too would have been "giant trees."  Thus Pelagornis Sandersi would not have had any difficulty in sarting its flights. Its up to the researchers to give thought to its flight habits too. 

Janice Fanning
Janice Fanning

Wow...21 foot wingspan, 48 lb bird in flight...incredible!

JOHN LONGENECKER
JOHN LONGENECKER

July 7. Lots of birds get to fly. Looks like fun to me. Some birds have astonishing feathers. Some are great dancers. Some like to sing. Why are male birds often prettier than girl birds? They have to be, to get the get the girl birds interested. They got to be nice to the girl birds all the time, treat them good and get them some delicious worms and little bugs from the vegetible garden to eat. The male birds should sit on new eggs a lot so the girl birds get to go visit all the other girl birds and practice flying around in flocks like Starlings. Human Being People can learn to have lots of fun if they keep some tasty bird food in their pockets all the time. I really like to see falcons and hawks and owls flying around. I like to see big black buzzards up at Alisal ranch in Solvang, California. I have no idea what they like to eat but the soar around the sky real good.

Martyn Bayliss
Martyn Bayliss

@Steve Wheeler you're weird. Love the big bird. As the lord loves you, and all humans. Even misguided imbecilic morons, that think that the Jewish media and not science propagate scientific fact. Bless you.

Andrew Burnett
Andrew Burnett

@Steve Wheeler I would like to think that you are joking. If not, then with all due respect you are sorely, sorely mistaken. Your comment might be taken as racist/offensive etc. Please keep such opinions to yourself - you only succeed in making yourself look like a complete idiot. Silly, Silly man. 


That bird must have been fascinating!!. 

S Narayanan
S Narayanan

@Steve Wheeler Garbage. Keep your hateful opinions to yourself. Also, if the "Lord created the Heavens and the Earth just over 3,000 years ago" then how do you explain the dinosaurs? Or are they just a fancy tail created by the liberal Jewish media? Keep this trash to yourself. Also,why blame the Jews for this? Why even bring them into the comment? Its sad to hear this junk in the 21st century. 

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