A recent study published last week in Scientific Reports says that over a 50 million years ago a flightless bird weighing hundreds of pounds used to live on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle.
A single bone find was responsible for the bird’s discovery
The bone that provides the basis for the find was first found in the 1970s and was being stored in a collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature and was studied by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder along with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
“People thought there was a larger bird up there but the fossils had never been described,” CU-Boulder’s Jaelyn Eberle, a co-author of a study recently told Fox News.
“There are lots of wonderful discoveries we can make in the field,” she continued. “But I would say there are a lot of great discoveries that can be made in collections that have been hanging around for a while but, for whatever reason, hadn’t been described. We knew there were birds but nothing had been described until this paper.”
Gastornis has been known from mid-latitudes for a long time, from Wyoming, Colorado, Europe. What we were able to do was compare that fossil from the Arctic to all of these mid-latitude specimens,” she said. “I think what is interesting is that the toe is virtually identical to specimens from Wyoming. The difference is they are 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) apart. That is kind of strange.”
Big scary bird
From the examination of the bone, Eberle and her colleague and lead author of the study, Thomas Stidham, suggest that Gastornis would have been capable of causing quite a fright given its stature. Imagine a bird, a prolific carnivore of a bird, that stands roughly 6-feet tall with the head the size of a horse’s head. However, other researchers have recently determined that this bird was a vegan and not some massive meat-eating horse-headed monster bird. But it still would have been a nasty thing to look at.
The researchers point out that today Ellesmere island can see temperatures reaching minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter compared to 50 million years ago where it would have been similar in weather conditions to a coastal island in South Carolina.
Unlike birds today which simply migrate through the Arctic, the researchers believe that the wholly different environment on the island and its flightless nature would have made Gastornis a year-long resident.
“We would hyphosize that a large bird, just like large mammals up there, could overwinter in the Arctic,” she said. “Because this is a land dwelling bird, I think they were permanent residents. Part of it is because – this is the same argument we use for the mammals up there – it’s energetically expensive for an animal that walks on land to travel from Ellesmere Island down the tree line each year.”
Based on fossil evidence, this bird would not have been the only scary denizen of Ellesmere Island which is located off the coast of Greenland. Fossils suggest that the Gastornis would have shared the island with the cute but deadly hippopotamus or rhino type animals, the considerably less cute crocodile as well as tapirs and primates.
While the Gastornis was vegan its size and razor sharp beak would have allowed it to defend itself from the other island residents.