Scientists confirm largest ever flying bird species

"This is pushing the boundary of what we know about avian size," said Daniel Ksepka.
By Brooks Hays  |  July 7, 2014 at 5:56 PM
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CHARLESTON, S.C., July 7 (UPI) -- The shadow of a Pelagornis sandersi -- the largest bird species to ever take to the skies -- flying overhead, would offer a momentary shade for a few dozen people below. Some might even mistake the shadow for that of an airplane.

The Pelagornis sandersi, which has been extinct for a few million years, would have cast such an impressive shadow because its wing span stretched some 24 feet -- nearly the size of a small prop plane.

The newly confirmed species is named for Charleston Museum curator Albert Sander, who discovered the bird's remains some 30 years ago as he surveyed the lands which were to become the Charleston International Airport.

But until now, the fossil was just that, nothing more than a single fossil -- unconfirmed as the evidence of a new giant bird species. That has changed thanks to paleontologist Daniel Ksepka, the curator of who rediscovered the bones of Pelagornis sandersi.

Kspecka detailed the impressive specimen in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He claims the fossils indicate that the ancient specimen as at least twice as the size of today's largest flying bird, the Royal Albatross.

"This is pushing the boundary of what we know about avian size," he said, "and I'm very confident that the wingspan is the largest we've seen in a bird capable of flight."

Not only was Pelagornis sandersi nearly as big as a prop plane, its behavior was very much like a small sea planet -- preferring to stick to the ocean. Twenty-five million years ago, when Pelagornis sandersi reigned, Charleston was underwater.

"Pelagornis sandersi could have traveled for extreme distances while crossing ocean waters in search of prey," Ksepka said.

The bird -- which likely took off not by flapping its heavy wings but by running down hill and using the uplift of the ocean winds to take flight (kind of like a hang glider) -- could soar for miles without flapping its giant wings.

"The long wings would have been cumbersome [on land] and it would have probably spent as little time as possible walking around," Ksepka explained.

Ksepka and his fellow scientists say they want to do more research to figure out why the species, which outlived the dinosaurs, eventually went extinct.

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