An artist's reconstruction of Pelagornis sandersi.
REUTERS/Liz Bradford/Bruce Museum/Handout via Reuters
The wandering albatross, a magnificent seabird that
navigates the ocean winds and can glide almost endlessly over
the water, boasts the biggest wingspan of any bird alive today,
extending almost 3.5 metres.
But it is a mere pigeon compared to an astonishing extinct
bird called Pelagornis sandersi, identified by scientists
this week from fossils unearthed in South Carolina, that
lived 25 to 28 million years ago and boasted the
largest-known avian wingspan in history, about 6.1 to 7.4m.
Size alone did not make it unique. It had a series of bony,
tooth-like projections from its long jaws that helped it
scoop up fish and squid along the eastern coast of North
"Anyone with a beating heart would have been struck with
awe," said paleontologist Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum
in Greenwich, Connecticut, who led the study published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This bird
would have just blotted out the sun as it swooped overhead.
Up close, it may have called to mind a dragon."
With its short, stumpy legs, it may not have been graceful on
land, but its long, slender wings made it a highly efficient
glider able to remain airborne for long stretches despite its
It belonged to an extinct group called pelagornithids that
thrived from about 55 million years ago to 3 million years
ago. The last birds with teeth went extinct 65 million years
ago in the same calamity that killed the dinosaurs.
But this group developed "pseudoteeth" to serve the same
purpose. They lived on every continent including Antarctica.
"The cause of their extinction, however, is still shrouded in
mystery," Ksepka said.
"All modern birds lack teeth, but early birds such as
Archaeopteryx had teeth inherited from their non-bird,
dinosaurian ancestors. So in this case the pelagornithids did
not evolve new true teeth, which are in sockets, but rather
were constrained by prior evolution to develop tooth-like
projections of their jaw bones," said Paul Olsen, a Columbia
University paleontologist who did not take part in the study.
These birds lived very much like some of the pterosaurs, the
extinct flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs
that achieved the largest wingspans of any flying creatures,
reaching about 11m.
Its fossils were found in 1983 when construction workers were
building a new terminal at the Charleston International
Airport. Its skull is nearly complete and in great condition,
and scientists also have important wing and leg bones, the
shoulder blade and wishbone.
Until now, the birds with the largest-known wingspans were
the slightly smaller condor-like Argentavis magnificens,
which lived about 6 million years ago in Argentina, and
another pelagornithid, Pelagornis chilensis, that lived in
Chile at about the same time.
At about 48 to 90 pounds (22-40 kg), Pelagornis sandersi was
far from the heaviest bird in history, with numerous extinct
flightless birds far more massive.