A giant, flightless bird with a head the size of a horse’s roamed the Arctic 53m years ago when the icy wilderness was more like a swamp, scientists have confirmed.
A joint study by American and Chinese institutions found that the massive beast, known as Gastornis, existed on what is now known as Ellesmere island, found above the Arctic circle. It’s estimated the bird was 6ft tall and weighed several hundred pounds.
The evidence for Gastornis’s presence in the Arctic comes from a single fossil toe bone, found by researchers in the 1970s. Scientists have now finally confirmed that the bone matches that of a fossilized Gastornis of similar age found in Wyoming.
“I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000km (2,500 miles) to the north,” said Prof Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Stidham and his colleague Jaelyn Eberle, of the University of Colorado Boulder, matched the bones through techniques such as studying where muscle attachments lay. The research has been published in Scientific Reports.
The research raises some interesting questions over the behavior of Gastornis. The giant bird may have migrated south during winters in the Arctic, where darkness envelops the region for months at a time. The species was originally thought to be a formidable carnivore but recent research suggests that Gastornis was probably a vegan, using its huge beak to munch through leaves, nuts, seeds and fruit.
Eberle said bird fossils found in the Arctic are “extremely rare” and that the researchers aren’t sure whether Gastornis lived in the area year round.
“There are some sea ducks today that spend the winter in the cold, freezing Arctic, and we see many more species of waterfowl that are only in the Arctic during the relatively warmer spring and summer months,” she said.
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SOURCE: The Guardian, Oliver Milman