A Toothy Bird With a 17-Foot Wingspan Once Ruled the Air

By Eliza Strickland | September 16, 2010 1:52 pm

big-birdHere’s a new creature for the record books. In Chile, paleontologists have found the fossilized remains of a huge, toothy bird whose wingspan stretched 17 feet across. That means the bird, Pelagornis chilensis or “huge pseudoteeth,” had one of the longest wingspan ever recorded–a wingspan that was about as long as a giraffe is high.

This newly named species belongs to a group known as pelagornithids, birds that had bony tooth-like projections and long beaks. The well-preserved fossil that researchers turned up belonged to a bird that weighed about 64 pounds and had relatively light, thin-walled bones, according to the description published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. It cruised the skies between 5 and 10 million years ago.

big-bird-2The enormous wingspan gave P. chilensis certain advantages, like the ability to travel long distances and reach areas of the open ocean thick with potential prey. The researchers think it feasted on fish and squid, and may have trolled its hunting grounds with its lower beak skimming the water until its teeth could clamp down on a wriggling meal. But lead researcher Gerald Mayr says that a 17-foot wingspan is probably close to the maximum for a flying bird.

“There are a number of drawbacks if you become so large,” he added. Chicks would have to be raised over a long period of time, making them more prone to predation. “Moreover,” he added, “bird feathers are quite heavy, so very large birds may have become too heavy.” [Discovery News]

Mayr notes that these giants of the sky were “true birds,” not winged reptiles like the pterosaurs of the Jurassic era. He also seems a bit jealous of our early hominid ancestors, who may have caught a glimpse of P. chilensis in the flesh. Says Mayr:

“Their last representatives may have coexisted with the earliest humans in North Africa…. Bird watching in Chile would be thrilling if birds with more than 5-meter wingspans and huge pseudo-teeth were still alive.” [press release]

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Images: Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg / S. Tränkner; Carlos Anzures

  • Robert LeClare


  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I’m going to remember that there were people who might have had to deal with these the next time modern life seems to stressful.

  • http://www.misscellania.com/ Miss Cellania

    The largest wingspan ever recorded? How about Argentavis magnificens?


  • http://my.wetcoastlife.com WetCoastLife

    read the article and then read what Cellania posted and did a bit more checking and yup, Argentavis magnificens retains the crown.

    looks like someone didn’t do some fact checking but at least i learned about 2 big birds today.

  • http://goddesssophiawalker.com/wordpress/ Sophia Walker

    Fantastic! I am rediscovering dinosaurs after leaving them behind as a child.

    It’s amazing what I’ve missed!

  • http://jamesmakescomics.blogspot.com James Spencer

    Alright consequences aside, how can we clone this thing?

  • Schwa

    Ah, but is Argentavis magnificens a true bird too? That’s the question.

  • amphiox

    our early hominid ancestors, who may have caught a glimpse of P. chilensis in the flesh

    They would have needed a boat. . . .

    Ah, but is Argentavis magnificens a true bird too?

    Yes, it was.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Miss Cellania:

    Thanks for drawing my attention to Argentavis magnificens; the news article you link to does make the case for it being the bigger bird.

    But then there’s this from the current researchers’ paper in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on Pelagornis chilensis: “The fossil has the longest wing skeleton of any bird…”

    I’m confused, but edited the post to “one of the longest wingspans” to be safe.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    This may be the answer to the confusion. From The New York Times:

    “Although other, larger estimates have been made, they were based on fossils of feathers, and not on an intact skeleton, as in this case.”

  • http://tyrannosaurtuesday.blogspot.com Marko Bosscher

    Argentavis is known from feathers, so it is a “true bird”. Pterosaurs had a stretched membrane that acted as a wing.

    Personally I think the term “true bird” confusing and meaningless, it’s not as if Pterosaurs were “fake birds” (and it’s clear that they aren’t hinting at species closely related to birds).


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