World's largest flying bird was longer than a giraffe is tall

  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 3:00 PM

This undated image provided by the Bruce Museum shows a comparative wingspan line drawing of the world's largest-ever flying bird, Pelagornis sandersi, as identified by Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. At bottom left is a California condor, and at bottom right is a Royal albatross. The giant bird's skeleton was discovered in 1983 near Charleston, but its first formal description was released Monday, July 7, 2014 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (AP Photo/Bruce Museum, Liz Bradford)

Meet Pelagornis sandersi, a giant bird with a 21-foot wingspan — so wide that it could have been the size of a (very) small plane.

The extinct avian, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pushes the limit of what’s possible in bird flight. The one and only known Pelagornis sandersi fossil’s wings stretch a whopping 6.4 meters or 20.99 feet — bigger than the height of a giraffe (which usually stands 18 feet) and it’s about twice that of the royal albatross, among the largest living birds capable of taking to the skies.

The bird probably needed help to fly. It had to run downhill into a head wind, catching the air like a hang glider. Once airborne, it relied on air currents from the ocean to keep it gliding. As a bird gets heavier, it becomes harder for its muscles to propel the bird up and away. This means there must be a natural limit. But Pelagornis pushes the ceiling on the limits of bird flight.

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  • How it got its name: The bird was named after Albert Sanders, the now-retired museum curator of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. He collected the fossil after it was discovered and invited study author Daniel Ksepka, a paleontologist, to look through the fossils.

    How big? Its 21-foot wingspan is bigger than the height of a giraffe, which is about 18 feet.

    When it lived: 25 to 28 million years ago.

    Ocean view: It apparently snatched fish while soaring over the ocean. But it probably didn’t land on water and was likely clumsy on land.

    Why it matters: It pushes the limit of bird flight. Kspeka said, “It’s just another example where the fossil record can tell us something about biology that we might not be able to know from what we have around today.”

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