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Largest-Ever Flying Bird Was Twice The Size Of A Modern Albatross

July 8, 2014
Image Caption: This is an artist's drawing of the new fossil species Pelagornis sandersi, which may be the biggest flying bird ever found. Credit: Art by Liz Bradford

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

By studying the fossilized remains of an ancient great bird, scientists have found what is believed to be the largest flying bird ever discovered, according to research appearing in the July 7 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to study author Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, the creature now known as Pelagornis sandersi likely lived 25 million years ago and was twice the size of a modern albatross. Based on conventional formulas of flight, the extinct creature should have been too heavy to fly.

However, as Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal explained, new computer analysis conducted by Dr. Ksepka revealed that P. sandersi was able to use rising air currents in order to stay aloft for periods of at least a week at a time.

“You have to conclude that this animal was capable of flapping its wings and taking off, even though it is much heavier than the theoretical maximum weight of a flapping flying bird,” flight evolution expert Luis Chiappe of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, who wasn’t involved in the project, told Hotz. “Our modern perspective on the diversity of flight is rather narrow. These were very unique birds.”

In a statement, the Bruce Museum explained that the creature had a wingspan of between 20 to 24 feet. Dr. Ksepka estimated the length of the feathers based on the relationship between bone and feather lengths in living birds, then used computer simulations to demonstrate that the species could effectively glide.

The specimen was originally discovered in 1983 by James Malcom, a volunteer at the Charleston Museum who unearthed the fossil during excavations for a new terminal at South Carolina’s Charleston International Airport. It was well preserved, despite possessing extremely thin bones, and was so large a backhoe was required to recover it.

The largest flying bird currently on record is Argentavis magnificens, which National Geographic explained is a condor that lived in South American six million years ago and possessed a 23-foot wingspan. Paleontologist Antoine Louchart of France’s Institute of Functional Genomics, who also was not involved in the research, said that the new bird was “certainly much lighter and a better ‘flier’” than the extinct condor.

P. sandersi weighed approximately 48 pounds, and was most likely too heavy to run on water and take off like most modern waterfowl do. In addition, Discovery News said that its wings would have been too large to generate lift from a standing position. Dr. Ksepka and his colleagues conducted 24 computer simulations, ultimately determining that the bird probably either ran downhill or used air gusts similar to hang gliders in order to get airborne.

“This was a pretty impressive creature,” the study author told WSJ. “There is no doubt that this is the largest wingspan we have ever seen in a bird. It is one of the weirdest things we have ever seen, nothing like anything alive today.”

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Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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