Giant birds lived far earlier than previously estimated, study reveals

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The massive size of the 'bony-toothed' birds might have allowed them to engage in cross-global travel, since their fossils have been found on every continent.

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A study published Oct. 26 revealed that previously discovered giant “bony-toothed” birds lived much earlier than scientists previously estimated.

The paper is authored by Peter Kloess, a campus graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and the UC Museum of Paleontology, or UCMP, and by Ashley Poust and Thomas Stidham, two scholars who both received doctorates from UC Berkeley. The study makes use of fossils excavated in the 1980s.

These birds are part of the pelagornithid, or “bony-toothed” fossil group. They were similar to modern-day albatrosses, but had huge, 20-foot wingspans. Although their diet is as of yet unclear, Poust believes they hunted fish and marine life like their smaller, modern descendants do.

“(They) evolved to be giant really, really early, really soon after the extinction of the flying reptiles. And then they survive until 2 million years ago. They existed for 60 million years,” Poust said. “That’s crazy! That’s so successful! Just by comparison, modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years.”

Kloess estimates that their huge size allowed them to engage in cross-global travel, since their fossils have been found on every continent. These specific remains examined in this paper were discovered in Antarctica. Today, the continent is a frigid desert, but at the time of the pelagornithidae, Antarctica had a great diversity of fauna and abundant greenery, Poust said.

The remains were found in the 1980s by a UC Riverside team led by Michael Woodburne, another Berkeley alumnus.

“They find the bird bones, bring them back to Riverside, and eventually, in 2003, those specimens went from Riverside to Berkeley,” Kloess said. “I found them, came across them in the UCMP collections.”

After field missions, bones and fossils are kept in storage alongside the associated field notes. Much like in the humanities, researchers pour through archives looking for remains that can respond to unanswered questions, Kloess said.

Much remains to be discovered about the pelagornithidae, Kloess added. Scientists are still unsure why these long-lived giant birds died out two million years ago and if the recent findings represent the earliest specimens.

Researchers are also curious about the teeth of these birds; unlike other animals, the teeth of the pelagornithidae consist of bone lined in keratin, the material that makes up fingernails, according to Kloess.

This work is the product of multiple scholars and paleontologists, many of whom had strong ties to the campus, said Poust.

“I love that this was this cool multi-generational project of Cal,” Poust said. “People who had been here decades and decades ago and people who have gotten their Ph.D.s, multiple time periods are working together.”

Contact David Villani at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @davidvillani7.