A team of German scientists at a scientific conference in Florence, Italy, said studies of fossilized remains of Gastornis terror birds -- a flightless bird the grew to at 6 feet tall, with an enormous, ferocious beak -- indicate the creature was most likely not a meat eater.
It was the bird's impressive size and the ominous appearance lent by its massive, curved beak that had led many paleontologists to assume it had been a ruthless carnivore.
Thomas Tuetken of the University of Bonn told the conference, sponsored by the European Association of Geochemistry, he and his colleagues used chemical techniques -- specifically analyzing calcium isotope composition in fossilized bones -- to identify what proportion of the creature's diet was plant or animal.
Studying the remains, found in a coal mine in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, the researchers found the compositions in terror bird bones are similar to those of herbivorous mammals and dinosaurs and not carnivorous ones, suggesting the creatures did not live up to their fearsome appearance.
"Because calcium is a major proportion of bone -- around 40 percent by weight -- its composition is unlikely to have been affected much by fossilization," Tuetken said. "However, we want to be absolutely confident in our findings by analyzing known herbivores and carnivores using fossilized bone from the same site and the same time period."