Giant Flightless Bird Proven to Exist Over Arctic Circle 50 Million Years Ago

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A new study involving CU-Boulder and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has confirmed that a flightless bird weighing several hundred pounds roamed Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic about 50 million years ago. Illustration by Marlin Peterson

It's not something out of the latest sci-fi film. There really was a giant, flightless bird roaming the Arctic 50 million years ago. All it took was a single fossil toe bone to show that the bird—from the genus Gastornis—stood 6 feet tall and weighed several hundred pounds. It must have been a force of nature where it lived on Canada's Ellesmere Island above the Arctic Circle.

Paleontologists have been discussing the fossil toe bone since it was discovered on Ellesmere Island in the 1970s. But a paper published in the most recent issue of Scientific Reports is the first time the bone from the Gastornis has been closely examined and described, according to Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, one of the paper's co-authors.

Gastornis fossils have also been found in Europe and Asia. The fossil toe bone described in Scientific Reports is a near dead ringer to fossil toe bones from the huge bird discovered in Wyoming and which date to roughly the same time. In addition to the Gastornis bone from Ellesmere, another scientist reported seeing a fossil footprint there, probably from a large flightless bird, although its specific location remains unknown, said University of Colorado Boulder associate professor and study co-author Jaelyn Eberle Eberle.

Adjacent to Greenland, Ellesmere Island is now one of the coldest, driest environments on earth, where temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. But 50 million years ago, Gastornis enjoyed a climate similar to that of the cypress swamps of the southeastern U.S. today. Fossil evidence suggests the island was home to turtles, alligators, primates and large mammals similar to rhinos and hippos.

Not the creature to be feared as once was thought, Gastornis is now considered to have likely been a vegan that would rip apart nuts, foliage, seeds and hard fruit with its huge beak.