© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This Ancient Bird Had the Largest Wingspan Ever

Reconstruction Art by Liz Bradford
Pelagornis sandersi was an ancient marine bird with a wingspan nearly twice as large as anything living today.

An extinct species of bird just discovered may have had the largest wingspan ever. The animal lived 25 million years ago and was found buried at an airport.

Picture this: an ancient bird with a 24-foot wingspan soaring over the ocean. "It'd really be great to toss a beach chair out on the coast, and watch these big birds coming in for a landing," said Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

Ksepka just identified a new species of bird: pelagornissandersi. He said it was an animal that loved soaring over the water, kind of like a modern-day albatross. "Sandersi is in honor of Al Sanders. He was the curator at the Charleston Museum. He's actually the person who collected this fossil," Ksepka said.

That fossil was uncovered during renovations to the Charleston airport in the 1980s. It was cataloged and put in storage at the Charleston Museum alongside thousands of other specimens until 2010, when Ksepkacame to visit. "I did not know that this giant bird was lurking in the collections, so it was kind of stunning to see it," Ksepka said. "I laid down next to it and just one of the four wing bones was longer than my whole arm. I knew we had something special down there."

Credit Liz Bradford
Line drawing of World’s Largest-Ever Flying Bird, Pelagornis sandersi, showing comparative wingspan. Shown left, a California Condor, shown right, a Royal Albatross.

Ksepka took bone measurements and fed that data into a computer program that estimates wingspan and weight. What the simulations bounced back were this: sandersi’s wings were the largest of any bird to have ever flown. Ksepka published his results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I think it's a hugely important finding," said Daniel Field, paleontologist at Yale University who wasn't involved with the study. Field works on equations used to calculate the size of extinct birds. "The most remarkable thing about pelagornissandersi is that its wingspan vastly exceeded that of any living flying birds," he said, "It was almost twice that of the largest living albatrosses which, in the modern world, have the largest wingspans."

Albatrosses aren't the closest modern relative of this ancient bird. Kspeka said that title belongs to chickens and ducks. "We're talking about two of the kind of most mundane familiar birds that you see on a farm or at the park or on your dinner table," he said, "and they are the relatives of the largest bird that ever flew."

Going forward, Ksepka's said he hopes to puzzle out how this bird evolved and whether or not its massive size may have caused it to go extinct.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.

Related Content