Ancient Giants
9:06 am
Mon July 14, 2014

This Ancient Bird Had the Largest Wingspan Ever

An extinct species of bird just discovered may have had the largest wingspan ever. The animal lived 25 million years ago and was found buried at an airport.

Picture this: an ancient bird with a 24-foot wingspan soaring over the ocean. "It'd really be great to toss a beach chair out on the coast, and watch these big birds coming in for a landing," said Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

Ksepka just identified a new species of bird: pelagornis sandersi. He said it was an animal that loved soaring over the water, kind of like a modern-day albatross. "Sandersi is in honor of Al Sanders. He was the curator at the Charleston Museum. He's actually the person who collected this fossil," Ksepka said.

That fossil was uncovered during renovations to the Charleston airport in the 1980s. It was cataloged and put in storage at the Charleston Museum alongside thousands of other specimens until 2010, when Ksepka came to visit. "I did not know that this giant bird was lurking in the collections, so it was kind of stunning to see it," Ksepka said. "I laid down next to it and just one of the four wing bones was longer than my whole arm. I knew we had something special down there."

Line drawing of World’s Largest-Ever Flying Bird, Pelagornis sandersi, showing comparative wingspan. Shown left, a California Condor, shown right, a Royal Albatross.
Credit Liz Bradford

Ksepka took bone measurements and fed that data into a computer program that estimates wingspan and weight. What the simulations bounced back were this: sandersi’s wings were the largest of any bird to have ever flown. Ksepka published his results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I think it's a hugely important finding," said Daniel Field, paleontologist at Yale University who wasn't involved with the study. Field works on equations used to calculate the size of extinct birds. "The most remarkable thing about pelagornis sandersi is that its wingspan vastly exceeded that of any living flying birds," he said, "It was almost twice that of the largest living albatrosses which, in the modern world, have the largest wingspans."

Albatrosses aren't the closest modern relative of this ancient bird. Kspeka said that title belongs to chickens and ducks. "We're talking about two of the kind of most mundane familiar birds that you see on a farm or at the park or on your dinner table," he said, "and they are the relatives of the largest bird that ever flew."

Going forward, Ksepka's said he hopes to puzzle out how this bird evolved and whether or not its massive size may have caused it to go extinct.

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