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A giant flightless bird wandered in Arctic 53 million years ago

A giant flightless bird wandered in Arctic 53 million years ago

A giant flightless bird with a head the size of a horse's wandered about in the winter twilight of the high Arctic some 53 million years ago.

The evidence is a single fossil toe bone of the 6-foot tall, several-hundred-pound bird from Ellesmere Island above the Arctic Circle. The bone is nearly a dead ringer to fossil toe bones from the huge bird discovered in Wyoming and which date to roughly the same time.

The confirmation comes from a new study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the University of Colorado Boulder that describes the first and only fossil evidence from the Arctic of a massive bird known as Gastornis.

The Gastornis (formerly Diatryma) fossil from Ellesmere Island has been discussed by paleontologists since it was collected in the 1970s and appears on a few lists of the prehistoric fauna there, said Professor Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Gastornis fossils also have been found in Europe and Asia.

We knew there were a few bird fossils from up there, but we also knew they were extremely rare, said Eberle, an associate professor in geological sciences who conducts research on fossil mammals, reptiles and fishes. 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, Eberle said.

A paper by Stidham and Eberle appears in the most recent issue of Scientific Reports, an open access, weekly journal from the publishers of Nature.

About 53 three million years ago during the early Eocene Epoch, the environment of Ellesmere Island was probably similar to cypress swamps in the southeast U.S. today, Eberle said.

Originally thought to be a fearsome carnivore, recent research indicates Gastornis probably was a vegan, using its huge beak to tear at foliage, nuts, seeds and hard fruit.

A second Ellesmere Island bird from the early Eocene also is described by Stidham and Eberle in the new paper. Named Presbyornis, it was similar to birds in today's duck, goose and swan family but with long, flamingo-like legs. The evidence was a single humerus, or upper wing bone, collected by the same paleontology team that found the Gastornis bone.

Stidham compared casts of Presbyornis bones excavated in ancient Wyoming to the single bone from Ellesmere Island, including all of the marks for muscle attachments. I couldn't tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the north, he said.

He added, 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.

The paleontology team working on Ellesmere Island in the 1970s and who found the Gastornis and Presbyornis bones in the 1970s included Mary Dawson, Robert Mac West, Howard Hutchinson and Malcolm McKenna.

The new study has implications for the rapidly warming Arctic climate, primarily a result of greenhouse gases being pumped into Earth's atmosphere by humans.

A giant flightless bird wandered in Arctic 53 million years ago