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article imageFossil of giant prehistoric bird discovered in northern Chile Special

By Igor I. Solar     Sep 16, 2010 in Science
Santiago - The fossil remains of a prehistoric bird of huge proportions discovered in coastal sediments of the Atacama Desert of Chile, near the town of Bahía Inglesa, has been described as a new species.
The skeleton of the bird was found about 10 years ago by amateur collectors and it was initially reported in 2007. However, the bones were sold and moved to Germany by a German fossil collector who recognized its significance and in 2008 contacted Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Museum of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Through funds of the Senckenberg Nature Research Society, the specimen was acquired and returned to Chile.
Once it was returned, Dr. David Rubilar-Rogers, head of the Paleontology Section of the Chilean Museum of Natural History and Dr. Gerald Mayr studied the remains and concluded it belongs to an specimen of an ancient group of seabirds that inhabited the seashores of Northern Chile during the late Miocene epoch of the Neogene geologic period, between 5 and 10 million years ago.
Skull of Pelagornis chilensis  left side view. The bones and pseudo-teeth are neatly preserved. Cour...
Skull of Pelagornis chilensis, left side view. The bones and pseudo-teeth are neatly preserved. Courtesy of Dr. Rubilar-Rogers.
S. Trankner
The specimen, which has been identified as a new species and named Pelagornis chilensis, is about 70 percent complete and uncrushed. The bones of the large fossil bird will remain for preservation and display at the Chilean Museum of Natural History in Santiago. A life-size reconstruction of the bird is being prepared for exhibition at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum of Frankfurt.
According to the results of the research by Mayr and Rubilar, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the fossil bird belongs to a species not previously described pertaining to a prehistoric group known as Pelagornithids, also referred to as bony-toothed birds. They were exceptionally large birds, even larger than modern day albatrosses, with wingspans ranging from 5 to 6 meters. They had long, slender beaks bearing spiny, tooth-like projections, most likely used to capture and hold slippery preys in the open ocean, such as fish and squid.
Artistic reconstruction of Pelagornis chilensis in flight. Artwork by Carlos Azures. Courtesy of Dr....
Artistic reconstruction of Pelagornis chilensis in flight. Artwork by Carlos Azures. Courtesy of Dr. Rubilar-Rogers.
Pelagornis chilensis’ wingspan may have been no less than 5.2 meters (about 17 ft). This is the largest wingspan for a bird established on the basis of three-dimensionally preserved bones that were nearly complete. Other estimates for wing span of fossil birds have been based on less positive evidence. This is because most birds have fragile bones that often do not stand the fossilization process. Only a single partial skeleton of a bony-toothed bird was known prior to the discovery of the new Chilean specimen, and it is badly crushed.
“Although these animals would have looked like creatures from Jurassic Park, they were true birds, and their last representatives may have coexisted with the earliest humans in North Africa,” said Dr. Gerald Mayr.
“This specimen greatly improves our knowledge of the appearance of one of the most spectacular and fascinating animals that crossed the skies,” said the study’s co-author, Dr. David Rubilar-Rogers of the Museum of Natural History, Chile.
Rubilar-Rogers explains that "Pelagornithids were birds of worldwide distribution and have probably been among the largest flying animals on Earth. The name “bony- or pseudo-toothed” derives from the spikes or spiny bony projections along the beak resembling teeth, however true teeth are separate units inserted in the bone cavity."
About the gender of the specimen found in Bahia Inglesa, the researcher said: "It’s unknown whether this specimen was male or female. The appearance of the feathers is also a mystery since no impression of the feathers remained among the stones where the fossil was found."
The National Museum of Natural History  Santiago  Chile.
The National Museum of Natural History, Santiago, Chile.
Reference: Gerald Mayr and David Rubilar-Rogers. 2010. Osteology of a new giant bony-toothed bird from the Miocene of Chile, with a revision of the taxonomy of Neogene Pelagornithidae. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(5):1313–1330, September 2010.
More about Fossil record, Neogene, Prehistoric bird, Atacama desert, Chile
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