Fossils reveal largest airborne bird

Extinct avian may not have flapped, but it could glide

GETTING SOME AIR  The extinct P. sandersi (top) would have dwarfed modern-day fliers, including the California condor (bottom left) and the wandering albatross (right).

Liz Bradford 

A partial skull and a handful of other bones is all that’s left of the largest bird to ever take to the air. Unearthed near Charleston International Airport in South Carolina, the newly described Pelagornis sandersi darkened the skies about 28 million years ago. Its wingspan stretched to 6.4 meters, or about half the length of a city bus and twice the wingspan of the biggest living flier, the wandering albatross. Scientists previously thought that no albatross-like avian with a wingspan greater than about 5 meters could have gotten off the ground. But computer simulations by Daniel Ksepka at North Carolina State University show that P. sandersi’s long wings would have reduced drag, allowing it to soar over long distances. It’s not clear whether the big bird also flapped to power its flight, but it could have launched with a running takeoff, Ksepka writes July 7 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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