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High Arctic once hosted giant flightless bird

"What we know about past warm intervals in the arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future," said researcher Jaelyn Eberle.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 12, 2016 at 1:37 PM

BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Some 53 million years ago, a tall, flightless bird weighing several hundred pounds walked the hills of the high Arctic.

A team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the University of Colorado Boulder confirmed the bird's arctic presence after re-examining a single toe bone found on Canada's Ellesmere Island, which lies above the Arctic Circle.

The toe bone was discovered in the 1970s, but this is the first time it has been thoroughly examined by paleontologists. It is an exact match with toe bones found in Wyoming alongside a range of fossils belonging to a prehistoric bird known as Gastornis.

Stateside fossils suggest the bird stood six feet tall and weighed a few hundred pounds.

When Gastornis walked the hills of the Arctic, there wasn't any snow or ice on the ground. The climate and vegetation was more like the cypress swamps of the southeastern United States.

In other ways, the Arctic then was similar to the Arctic today.

"Since Ellesmere Island is high above the Arctic Circle, the lights still went out there for several months of the year, just as they do today," Jaelyn Eberle, an associate professor in geological sciences at Boulder, said in a press release.

Gastornis is described in the journal Scientific Reports alongside another bird species of the ancient Eocene Arctic.

Presbyornis is described as being similar to modern ducks or geese but with long flamingo-like legs. And like Gastornis, the Presbyornis specimen matched those found in Wyoming.

"I couldn't tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000 kilometers [2,500 miles] to the north," Eberle said.

Unlike Gastornis, Presbyornis could fly. But researchers say they don't enough evidence to know whether the species lived on the Arctic island permanently or migrated to and from.

Scientists hope further excavations and analysis will offer a clearer picture of what life was like in the Arctic when the planet was much warmer than it is now -- a picture that might prove useful for scientists trying to anticipate the ecological effects climate change.

"Permanent arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear," Eberle said. "I'm not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere Island any time soon. But what we know about past warm intervals in the arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future."

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