Soon after dinosaurs went extinct more than 60 million years ago, gigantic birds with wingspans reaching up to 21 feet and hacksaw-like teeth roamed the Earth’s southern oceans, according to researchers at the University of California Berkeley.
In a study published earlier this week in the journal Scientific Reports, the team of palaeontologists said that they discovered what may have been the largest bird species in history. They identified the birds as pelagornithids, the fossils of which were recovered from Antarctica in the 1980s.
The fossils, which included a foot bone and partial jaw bone belonging to two of the prehistoric birds, were found in Seymour Island, located in the Antarctic Peninsula. The pelagornithids were also known as “bony-toothed” birds due to their saw-like teeth and long beaks, which help them hunt for fish and squid.
Using the fossil’s size and measurements, the Berkeley researchers found that the foot bone belonged to the “the largest specimen known for the entire extinct group of pelagornithids”, CNN reported. The jaw bone, they said, was from a bird “as big, if not bigger, than the largest known skeletons of the bony-toothed bird group”.
“These Antarctic fossils…likely represent not only the largest flying birds of the Eocene but also some of the largest volant birds that ever lived,” the study stated. The researchers, led by palaeontologist Peter Kloess, found that the foot bone was at least 50 million years old, while the jaw bone dated back to around 40 million years ago.
This proved that the birds came along during the Cenozoic era, after an asteroid struck the Earth and led to the mass extinction of nearly the entire dinosaur population, CNN reported.
“Our fossil discovery, with its estimate of a 5-to-6-meter wingspan — nearly 20 feet — shows that birds evolved to a truly gigantic size relatively quickly after the extinction of the dinosaurs and ruled over the oceans for millions of years,” Kloess said in a press release.
“The extreme, giant size of these extinct birds is unsurpassed in ocean habitats,” the study’s co-author Ashley Poust added.
The pelagornithids are often likened to the albatross, which is known to fly across oceans around the world. “The big (pelagornithids) are nearly twice the size of albatrosses, and these bony-toothed birds would have been formidable predators that evolved to be at the top of their ecosystem,” study co-author Thomas Stidham explained.
While the fossils of bony-toothed birds have been found all over the world, the Antarctic fossils are the oldest known and indicate that the birds may have diversified into different forms of varying sizes within the six million years of their existence, CNN reported.
According to the study, Antarctica was vastly different when pelagornithids still roamed the Earth. The researchers believe that the region was a lot warmer back then, and home to land mammals that are distant relatives of anteaters and sloths.
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