Giant, flightless birds stalked the Arctic swamps 53 million years ago

Feb 24, 2016

Photo credit: A classic, 1917 restoration of North America’s Gastornis

By Husna Haq

Scientists have found what could be Big Bird’s prehistoric ancestor on an island in the Arctic Circle.

Giant, flightless birds with horse-size heads probably stalked the Arctic some 53 million years ago when the it was a balmy swamp, according to a study published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports.

In fact, scientists’ suspicions are based on a single toe bone found on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the 1970s. That toe bone is a perfect match for Gastornis, an ancient bird that lived in what is now Wyoming in North America during the same time period, according to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the north,” study co-author Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The ancient bird was probably a fearsome sight.

“Based on skeletal evidence, scientists know that Gastornis was built like a NFL lineman, standing around six feet tall, and weighing several hundred pounds,” writes The Christian Science Monitor. “Its head was approximately the size of a modern day horse’s head.”

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