World’s Largest Flying Bird Had 24-Foot Wingspan

By Gemma Tarlach | July 7, 2014 2:00 pm
Pelagornis sandersi has replaced Argentavis as the largest flying bird known. courtesy of Liz Bradford.

Pelagornis sandersi has replaced Argentavis as the largest flying bird known. Courtesy Liz Bradford

With a wingspan double that of today’s largest flyers, Pelagornis sandersi was truly the Big Bird of its day.

Researchers describing fossil remains of P. sandersi for the first time say the bird had a wingspan of up to 24 feet, qualifying it as the largest flying bird ever to take to Earth’s skies. Its size exceeds some estimates for the limits of powered flight, though computer models based on the well-preserved skeleton suggest the animal was an excellent glider. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers theorize the bird flew long oceanic distances in search of prey, similar to today’s albatrosses.

Pushing the Limits

P. sandersi‘s massive size challenges ideas about powered flight. As a bird’s size increases, even with its greater wingspan, the power needed to fly grows faster than the power it can generate for flight.

Using a program that models both flapping (powered) and gliding flight, researchers reconstructed P. sandersi‘s likely capabilities. Due to skeletal features such as extremely long wings in relation to its body size, the models suggest the mega-bird was a fast, efficient glider that could have flown up to 17 meters per second.

Although gliding was likely its primary means of travel, P. sandersi may have been capable of powered flight in the right circumstances, including a standing takeoff.

With a wingspan up to 24 feet wide, Pelagornis sandersi dwarfs two of the largest living birds, the California Condor (left) and the Royal Albatross (right. Line drawing by Liz Bradford.

With a wingspan up to 24 feet wide, Pelagornis sandersi dwarfs two of the largest living birds, the California Condor (left) and the Royal Albatross (right). Courtesy Liz Bradford.

Battle of the Big Birds

P. sandersi‘s size puts it just ahead of Argentavis, previously considered the largest bird known. Argentavis, distantly related to today’s Andean condor, ruled the skies over South America 6-8 million years ago and had a wingspan of about 23 feet.

Neither bird comes close to the largest pterosaurs, however. The supersized reptile gliders of the Arzhdarcidae family had wingspans of 35 feet or more. Like the rest of Earth’s megafauna at the time, however, the pterosaurs perished at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago.

Researchers analyzing P. sandersi note that fossils of the massive bird and its relatives have been found on all seven continents, indicating that the animals were successful for millions of years. Their sudden disappearance from the fossil record some 3 million years ago remains a mystery, but reminds us that no animal is too big to fail.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, birds, paleontology
  • JAC

    The powered flight versus gliding distinction is not clear to me.

    If the bird dove to its prey in the water, then it had to use powered flight to regain altitude.

    I’m guessing the line between powered and gliding is not clear-cut, i.e. gliders flap sometimes, and of course powered birds glide sometimes (except hummingbirds, I bet!).

    Edited to add: Fascinating article!

    • GemmaTarlach

      Hi, JAC, and thanks! Gliding v. flapping (powered) flight are the two main “methods,” if you will, of flight for birds (and some other winged animals, such as bats…the other methods are soaring and hovering). Most flying birds use some combination of methods, but because flapping requires significantly more power/aerobic energy than gliding, a lot of people think a bird the size of P. sandersi wouldn’t be capable of flapping. If a bird is too big, it simply can’t generate the energy needed. The researchers involved in today’s study showed, however, that based on computer models looking at things like lift-to-drag ratios, wing aspect ratios and other elements, P. sandersi was indeed able both to glide and to flap.

      Powered flight is not necessarily needed to regain altitude, either. Some super-efficient soarers and gliders are capable of using air currents to change altitude with impressive precision.

      Thanks for reading!

      • LuckyProf

        I think JAC’s point was that with or without the computer modeling, the very existence of this animal already tells us that our understanding of the physics of flapping is not complete. How could a bird shaped like that, with no apparent terrestrial or arboreal climbing ability, be purely a glider? It wouldn’t make any sense.

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    This incredible beast deserves a graphic which highlights its size in some way. Maybe it could be holding a saber-tooth tiger cub in its talons?

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