Scientists detail what they believe is the biggest seabird to have ever lived. Called Pelagornis sandersi, it soared just above the ocean’s waves about 25 million years ago and had a 21-foot wingspan.

The fossil of the massive bird was found just outside an airport in Charleston, South Carolina back in the early 1980s. But, this week was the first time it was described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

How does Pelagornis stack up against today’s wide-winged birds? It’s 21-foot wingspan overshadows today’s biggest bird, the royal albatross. The royal albatross has a wingspan of 11.5 feet. Tiny compared to Pelagornis sandersi.

While its 21-foot wingspan is impressive, it’s not the biggest bird ever found. That title belongs to Argentavis magnificens, a condor with a 23-foot wingspan that soared the Andes mountains six million years ago.

One of the more interesting finds in the study was how the bird may have flown. Instead of soaring air currents, it may have hovered right above the ocean’s waves. The biggest potential challenge for the bird 25 million years ago was taking off. Weighing in at 48 points, scientists believe it would have needed a strong wind for a successful takeoff.

The Pelagornis sandersi fossil continues to push scientists understanding of how big birds’ wingspans could get.

The study “raise the ceiling for birds — we increase the upper limit of how large we knew birds could get in terms of wingspan,” Daniel Ksepka, the study’s author 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.”

Kspeka also had time for a bit of humor. “A giant bird lands at an airport 25 million years too soon—it’s kind of amusing,” he said. “Maybe he should have just waited and landed on the new runway.”

Illustration: Pelagornis sandersi compared to a California condor (left) and royal albatross (right). Credit: Liz Bradford


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