Biggest-Ever Flying Bird Soared With 20-Foot Wingspan

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The world’s largest-ever flying bird has just been identified, according to scientists who say the bird’s wingspan was about 24 feet long, which is around the same length as a dance floor suitable for 160 people.

The long-extinct bird, named Pelagornis sandersi in honor of retired Charleston Museum curator Albert Sanders, was appropriately unearthed at what is now the site of the Charleston International Airport. This literal big bird, described in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took off from the site in Charleston, S.C., 25 to 28 million years ago.

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Its fossils were so big that some of them had to be dug out with a backhoe.

“The upper wing bone alone was longer than my arm,” co-author Dan Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., said in a press release.

Ksepka and his team believe that Pelagornis sandersi was twice as big as the largest flying bird alive today: the royal albatross. It also pushes the current record holder for largest flying bird ever to fly the skies, Argentavis magnificens, into second place.

Analysis of P. sandersi’s remains strongly suggest that it could fly.

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The enormous bird had paper-thin hollow bones, stumpy legs and giant wings that would have made it at home in the air, but awkward on land, according to the researchers. They believe its impressive wings would have allowed for efficient gliding.

But how could such a bird have taken off? Its wings were too big to flap and generate lift from a standing position. The wings would have just hit the ground with a thud.

Ksepka and his team created computer simulations and determined that the bird probably ran downhill into a headwind or took advantage of air gusts to get aloft, similar to what hang gliders do.

Once airborne, it must have been quite a sight. Riding on air currents that rise from the ocean’s surface, the big bird could have soared for miles over the open ocean without flapping its wings. It hunted marine life, so it must have occasionally swooped down to the water to feed on soft-bodied prey like squid and eels, according to the new study.

“That’s important in the ocean, where food is patchy,” said Ksepka.

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He and his colleagues hope to learn why this bird and its relatives eventually died out. Note that the bird lived long after non-avian dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago, so that extinction event definitely did not do these birds in.

Information about the birds could also lead to new and improved aircraft that one day might take to the skies in about the same spot where this bird once did all those years ago.

Image: A recreation of the new fossil species Pelagornis sandersi. Credit: Liz Bradford.

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