Giant Bird the Size Of a Plane

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Old 02-Dec-2008
Giant Bird the Size Of a Plane

Lending a whole new meaning to ‘Mother Goose,’ scientists have unveiled the skull of a giant prehistoric bird that boasted teeth with a monstrous wingspan the size of a small plane at 16.25 feet (5 meters) tip to tip, and once flew over the wetlands of southeast England when the land which now covers London, Essex, and Kent was underwater.

Darsornis: A computer-generated image of the giant duck with a 16ft wingspan that roamed over Britain 50million years ago.

Photo Senckenberg Research Institute & Natural History Museum

Scientists announced the discovery of fossil skulls of these extraordinary prehistoric beasts buried in clay on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent on Friday. While the occurrence of bony-toothed birds in these deposits has been known for a long time, this fossil is one of the best skulls ever found, providing previously unknown details of the anatomy of these strange creatures. These giant ocean-going birds had a rather bizarre attribute for a bird — their beaks were lined with bony ‘teeth’ to grab their food. Now known as Dasornis, these monstrous-sized birds once skimmed the waters, snapping up fish and squid with their bony-toothed beak 50 million years ago. Their massive wingspan also allowed them to cover large distances. Not your typical fluffy feathered creature, Dasornis was in many ways similar to the modern albatross, but research has shown that its closest cousins are ducks and geese. Albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird, but the Dasornis was over a meter and half greater. Dasornis belong to a group of now-extinct giant birds called Pelagornithids, first named by Owen in 1869.

The Darsornis fossil skull discovered by palaeontologists on the Isle of Sheppey.

“Imagine a bird like an ocean-going goose, almost the size of a small plane.” said Dr Gerald Mayr, expert palaeornithologist from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, author of the report for the find which he wrote on Friday in the British journal Palaeontology, published by the Palaeontological Association. “By today’s standards these were pretty bizarre animals, but perhaps the strangest thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak.” “Like all living birds, Dasornis had a beak made of keratin, the same substance as our hair and fingernails, but it also had these bony “pseudo-teeth.” he explains. “No living birds have true teeth — which are made of enamel and dentine — because their distant ancestors did away with them more than 100 million years ago, probably to save weight and make flying easier.”

“But the bony-toothed birds, like Dasornis, are unique among birds in that they reinvented tooth-like structures by evolving these bony spikes.” So why did Dasornis have these pseudo-teeth? “It’s linked to diet.” says Mayr. “With only an ordinary beak these would have been difficult to keep hold of, and the pseudo-teeth evolved to prevent meals slipping away.” The fossil is in a collection at the Karlsruhe Natural History Museum, Germany.

Old 02-Dec-2008
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