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Fossils extracted from Antarctica in the 1980s may belong to the largest flying bird ever, a new study has found.

Called pelagornites, the now extinct group of birds has a wingspan of up to 21 feet – almost twice that of today.

The age of the fossils – from 62 million years to 2.5 million years – suggests that pelagornites emerged after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

With “bony teeth” and sharp beaks, the birds chased fish and squid. Researchers have found that pelargoniums have traveled the world’s southern oceans for at least 60 million years, similar to today’s albatross.

“These Antarctic fossils … are probably not only the largest flying birds of the Eocene, but also some of the largest flying birds that have ever lived,” the study said.

Published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, the study examined fossils collected by the University of California, Antarctic Riverside paleontologists in the mid-1980s – including a leg bone and a partial jawbone from what is now considered the most the largest (and oldest) pelagornites ever recorded.

According to a university news release, the fossils were moved to the UC Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, where student Peter Cloes met them in 2015.

Chloes is the lead author of the study. With his two co-authors, he used fossil measurements to compare them in scale with previously discovered pelagornite skeletons. The team found that the fragments came from creatures that were large, if not larger, than the known size of the missing bird.

“Our discovery of fossils … shows that birds evolved to truly gigantic proportions relatively quickly after the extinction of the dinosaurs and ruled the oceans for millions of years,” Chloez said.

The study also helps paleontologists imagine what Antarctica was like 50 million years ago. It was not the icy continent it is today, but much warmer and home to extinct terrestrial mammals, including distant relatives of sloths and anteaters. The area was also a “playground” for various species of birds.

“The giant extinct pelargoniums, with their very long pointed wings, would fly widely over the ancient open seas, which still had to be dominated by whales and seals,” said co-author Thomas Steedham of the Institute of Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of Vertebrate Animals at the Chinese Academy. of Science in Beijing.

“These bony-toothed birds would be fearsome predators that evolved to be at the top of their ecosystem.”

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