This Gigantic Bird Had a 20 Foot Wingspan and a Terrifying Beak with Teeth

Written by Lex Basu
Updated: October 5, 2022
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Key Points

  • Pelagornis are a gigantic bird belonging to the Pelecaniformes family that went extinct around 3 million years ago.
  • They are believed to the prehistoric version of the modern day pelicans, waterfowls and storks.
  • They had sharp teeth like protrusions in their beak that helped them scoop up birds and squids easily.

The Pelagornis belonged to the family Pelagornithidae. They were seabirds under the order Pelecaniformes. These birds existed from the Late Paleocene age to the Late Pliocene age. Some of the species even lived during the Middle Eocene in Antarctica. These giant birds had a wingspan much longer than any birds of today.

Itching to learn about the Pelagornis? Read on to discover everything you could ever want to know about this large-winged prehistoric bird!

Physical Characteristics

The Pelagornis had a wingspan of about 20 feet, or 6 meters. Their general appearance was similar to modern albatrosses. But, their bills were larger with tooth-like extensions. Their distinct bills allowed them to grasp slippery prey items, such as squid or fish. Scientists believe that the Pelagornithidae family may be where the tubenoses and pelicans came from.

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These ancient birds had stumpy and short legs. They were possibly 16 inches high. Their wings were long and slender, and these wings could have made them master gliders. Their wings allowed them to stay in the air for long periods despite their huge size. These birds weighed about 48.2 to 88.4 pounds. Fossils show that the Pelagornis held its head upright and at a vertical angle.

Pelagornis

The Pelagornis had a wingspan of 20 feet!

©Ryan Somma / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license – License

Period of Existence

The oldest known Pelagornis specimens are from the Late Paleocene age. These birds lived about 3 million years ago. Evidence shows that the early humans did not encounter these birds at all.

The Osteodontornis was a genus of the Pelagornithidae. It lived from the Early Oligocene to the Pliocene eras in the Northern Hemisphere. This bird was one of the largest birds at the time. They lived between 20 to 6 million years ago.

Experts know very little about this prehistoric bird. Their main discovery is that they lived about 28 million years ago. Their fossils were so big that the paleontologists needed a backhoe to dig them out. So far, only four species have accurate descriptions from found fossils. But, there are likely still more fossils waiting to be unearthed.

After all, many Pelagornis fossils have been found in numerous countries all over the world.

Diet and Lifestyle

Pelagornithidae is a family to which the Pelagornis genus belongs. The large Pelagornis is now a contender for the genus of the biggest bird ever known to be capable of flight.

In 2014, one species of Pelagornis, Pelagornis sandersi, was discovered. It had a wingspan of 6 to 7 meters across. Birds this large are and were not usually capable of flight.

The body structure of the Pelagornis was much like that of the wandering albatross. This species of albatross can soar over the open ocean for long periods of time. These birds can fly and glide using the currents produced by ocean waves. Because of this, it is likely that the Pelagornis could have used the same technique. It was likely to have been a glider rather than a laboring flapper, like how much birds, we know, fly.

These birds had pseudo-teeth extending from the edges of their large bills. These were not true teeth, and they did not grow from sockets in the jawbone. They are not as strong as genuine teeth. Scientists believe that these teeth may have grown continually throughout the bird’s life. The pseudo-teeth might have helped the Pelagornithids catch slippery prey.

Hunting Habits

Because they were sea birds, their natural prey were fish and other sea creatures.

The Pelagornis would soar over the ocean surface and snatch the prey from the waters. Paleontologists say that the Pelagornis may have even hunted underwater with its superior diving ability. These ancient birds spend most of their lives flying over the open ocean. When they did stay on land, they had a difficult time walking because of their shorter tails and thick legs. That is why they spent most of their time sitting on land when they were not flying over water.

The vertical position of their heads is thought to have been meant for grabbing prey or scooping them from the ocean surface as they flew.

Researchers say that the wandering albatross has been known to eat too much while in flight. These birds occasionally have trouble taking off until the food has been digested. This could have been true with Pelagornis, as well.

Behavior

The Pelagornis spent most of their lives at sea. They were said to glide on oceanic thermals. These areas would have supported their huge bodies in the air. This technique helped the Pelagornis stay up in the air without flapping their wings too much, which wastes energy. Flapping wings would have made it difficult to stay up in the air long enough to find food.

Paleontologists say that the late emergence of the pseudo-teeth indicates that these ancient birds may have fed their young on land like modern birds. This could have happened long before they started feeding in open water. Evidence also shows that Pelagornis was a social group of birds. They are thought to have lived in large colonies and nurtured their young within their social circles.

Scientists believe that these birds also nested in plateaus, on cliffs, and in other rocky areas. Doing so would have made it easier for them to take off from a great height. Research shows that this bird may have also launched itself on the ground or surface of the water. They said that this was possible by running to build enough power to take off. Once these large birds were in the air, their wings caught the air currents that lifted them up as they soared.

What Else Did Scientists Discover?

It was discovered that the Pelagornis had a salt gland in the eye. This allowed these huge birds to eliminate excess salt from their bodies. This was a good adaptation since a large portion of their diet was seafood. They also had a furrow in their skull. Experts say that this helped support their heads whenever they grabbed their prey in the ocean. These ancient birds may also have scavenged along the coastline. Scientists say that these birds were protective of their territory, young, and nesting areas.

Evidence shows that these birds flew hundreds or even thousands of kilometers each year. They possibly landed on many areas, including remote islands, to keep away from predators whenever they nested. Scientists add that these birds may have also molted all their feathers at the same time. This happens to feathers that are not suitable for flying anymore.

Living Environment

The Pelagornis thrived along the world’s coastlines. This made it challenging for scientists to determine the different types of animals that these birds lived with. Scientists believe that since the Pelagornis lived quite long, it was likely that they interacted with many animals that frequented the oceans.

Based on fossil records, these birds likely stayed in warmer marine ecosystems, where there were cliffs for effortless take-offs. They could have interacted with cetaceans, penguins, and the megalodon.

Differences in Species

Pelagornis species differ because of time and location. They differed in size and shape according to fossil evidence.

Tympanonesiotes were smaller members. Pelagornis sandersi was the largest species. Pelagornis chilensis was categorized as the best one. There is limited information about the family Pelagornithidae. But, scientists do know that many species of the genus Pelagornis dispersed all over the world.

The Pseudo-teeth

All modern birds do not have teeth. This is largely because of their strong beaks that they used to hunt, instead. When the Odontopterygiformes developed pseudo-teeth, which is an outgrowth of tooth-like bone, the pattern was uneven, arranged in irregular waves. The only other bird that developed these bony odontoids is the moa-nalos of Hawaii. These birds were goose-like in appearance.

The one-of-a-kind pseudodentition helped the Pelagornis to attack and catch large prey. This adaptation allowed the Odontopterygiformes to evolve anatomically and functionally. These birds changed in size, movement, specialization, ecological adaptation, and skeletal structure. Scientists believe that the lack of grasping strength in the mandible brought forth the development of the premaxillary hook and pseudo-teeth in these ancient birds. Other experts interpret pseudo-teeth as bony outgrowths of the bird’s jawbone. They see it as dental tissue that does not have minerals.

Conclusion

The family Pelagornithidae is a group of pseudo-toothed birds. According to current scientific knowledge, these were the only giant birds that had the ability to fly. Fossil evidence shows that these birds were built to fly, like the modern wandering albatross. These birds may have used their pseudo-teeth to grasp slippery prey from the ocean. They likely used the thermal waters and air currents to lift them up, so they did not need to flap their wings much. Pelagornis was an amazing genus of ancient seabirds, and are the ancestors of modern birds.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Ryan Somma / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license – License / Original


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About the Author

Lex is a green-living, tree-hugging, animal-lover, who at one time was the mother to twenty one felines and one doggo. Now she helps pet owners around the globe be the best caretakers for their most trusting companions by sharing her experience and spreading love.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Why did the Pelagornithidae disappear?

Scientists believe that the start of the Ice Age caused severe changes in air flow, currents, and water patterns. Because the Pelagornis did not flap their wings all the time, they relied on thermals and soaring. These drastic environmental changes affected the ability of these ancient birds to get food from open water. This led to a decrease in the number of Pelagornothids. The continuous changes in climate finally wiped them all out.

When did the last toothed bird disappear?

The last of the species disappeared about 66 million years ago when the end-Cretaceous mass extinction wiped them out.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
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  9. Taylor & Francis Online, Available here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2012.676114