In a warmer world inundated by water, the colossal seabird glides effortlessly across the glassy ocean despite its hefty weight. As it passes over the setting sun, its enormous 20-foot wingspan temporarily blocks out the light. The creature drops toward the ocean, spearing a fish at the water's surface with its spear-like teeth.
The news: This was the world of Pelagornis sandersi, whose giant skeleton archaeologists recently unearthed in South Carolina. Based off the bones, it's believed this creature is the largest bird to ever roam the skies.
At a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, Pelagornis was more than twice the length of its closest living relative, the royal albatross. To think of it another way, the bird would have had wings spanning two of these 10-foot moving trucks.
"Anyone with a beating heart would have been struck with awe," said paleontologist Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., who led the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Up close, it may have called to mind a dragon."
Though the bones were originally unearthed in the 1980s, Albert Sanders, the Charleston Museum's curator, tucked them away in a drawer for later study, but never got around to examining them. It wasn't until earlier this year that Ksepka came across the creature's bones and conducted further tests.
What was the world like when this giant bird was around? Pelagornis lived all over the planet — even as far as Antarctica — between 25 and 28 million years ago, when the planet was far warmer than it is today and largely covered with water.
In this water world, the giant bird likely spent its life skybound. Despite its enormous size, Pelagornis was an incredibly efficient glider, whose long, slender wings allowed it to hover without a single flap of its wings. Using a row of spear-shaped "teeth" (These aren't your traditional enamel-based chompers, but instead sharp extensions of the jawbone.) Pelagornis probably took a break from flight only for a snack break, stopping to pierce the occasional fish or squid at the water's surface.
The colossal flyer dominated the skies for tens of millions of years, but mysteriously vanished just 3 million years ago.
The bird's wings, as compared to a California condor (bottom left) and a royal albatross, (bottom right). Image Credit: Liz Bradford and US News and World Report
How did such a big bird fly? Pelagornis pushes the limits of what scientists thought was possible for flight. In 2010, archaeologists found the bones of a swooping seabird that broke the record for the largest (17 feet) bird to reach the skies.
And at 88 pounds, floating suspended in the air was no small feat for Pelagornis. Scientists think the animal got a running start to get aloft or took advantage of gusty headwinds to catch enough air to launch into the sky.