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article imageLargest ever flying bird had wingspan as wide as soccer goalmouth

By Robert Myles     Jul 8, 2014 in Science
Charleston - From fossilized remains, scientists have identified an extinct bird of gargantuan proportions whose wingspan was as wide as a soccer goalmouth.
The discovery of the creature, with an estimated wingspan of between 20 and 24 feet (about 6 to 7.3 meters), was made after scientists associated with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESC), a non-profit science center jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, started examining a fossil, unearthed as far back as 1983, when construction workers began excavations for a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport.
Artist s drawing of the new fossil species Pelagornis sandersi  with the bone fragments the workers ...
Artist's drawing of the new fossil species Pelagornis sandersi, with the bone fragments the workers found shown in white. The strikingly well-preserved specimen consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull.
Art by Liz Bradford
So big was the fossil when first found, it had to be dug out with a backhoe (JCB). Putting the size of the discovery in perspective, NESC’s Dan Ksepka, who authored the research, said, “The upper wing bone alone was longer than my arm."
Researchers believe it could be the biggest flying bird ever found, wresting the avian size record from another extinct species, Argentavis magnificens.
Argentavis magnificens, resembling a giant vulture, once soared in the skies above what is now Argentina but died out around million years ago.
The largest flying bird today, the Royal Albatross, with a wingspan of just under 10 feet (3 meters), is more like a hang-glider compared with the newly discovered jumbo-bird.
Now reposing in the collections at the Charleston Museum, the newly discovered species has been named 'Pelagornis sandersi' in honor of retired Charleston Museum curator, Albert Sanders, who led the fossil's excavation.
Scientists have deduced the Charleston specimen was an extremely efficient glider, whose long slender wings helped it stay aloft despite its enormous size. The well-preserved example found, consisted of multiple wing and leg bones and a complete skull.
Due to Pelagornis sandersi's sheer size and telltale beak, Ksepka was able to distinguish it as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony tooth-like spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws.
Pelagornis sandersi plied the skies between 25 and 28 million years ago. That places its existence sometime after the dinosaurs died out but well before humanity came along. From P. Sandersi’s anatomical makeup — paper-thin hollow bones, stumpy legs and giant wings — researchers concluded that it must have flown since such features would have made it awkward on land.
But the problem was that, in theory at least, P. sandersi should have been incapable of flight since its body size exceeded the maximum for flying birds predicted by some mathematical models.
Just how P. sandersi, which was clearly built for flight, managed, not just to take to the air, but stay in the air, wasn’t at all clear.
To solve the conundrum, Ksepka fed the fossil data into a computer program designed to predict flight performance taking into account various estimates of mass, wingspan and wing shape.
Paleontologist Dan Ksepka examines the fossilized skull of what may be the biggest flying bird ever ...
Paleontologist Dan Ksepka examines the fossilized skull of what may be the biggest flying bird ever found. Its telltale beak allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of pelagornithid, an extinct group of giant seabirds known for bony tooth-like spikes that lined their upper and lower jaws.
Dan Ksepka
From that he concluded that P. sandersi was probably too big to take off from a standing start just by wing-power alone. More likely, P. sandersi achieved take-off by running downhill into a headwind or took advantage of air gusts to get aloft, much like a modern-day hang glider.
Once airborne, Ksepka’s flight simulation for P. Sandersi pointed to the bird's long, slender wings making it a highly efficient glider. Using air currents above the surface of the ocean, P. sandersi was able to get an assist from these thermals. This behemoth of the skies could soar for miles over the briny expanse below, without so much as a beat of its wings, occasionally swooping down and plucking soft-bodied prey like squid and eels whenever it felt peckish.
The researchers, whose work is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title "Flight performance of the largest volant bird," hope their findings will help explain why the family of birds that P. sandersi belonged to became extinct as well as adding to our understanding of how such giants of the skies managed to fly.
More about biggest birds, Paleontology, largest ever bird, biggest flying bird, Pelagornis sandersi
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