Massive vegan birds prowled the Arctic about 53 million years ago during the early Eocene epoch, according to a new study.
For the new study – published Friday (Feb. 12) in the journal Scientific Reports – researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and at the Chinese Academy of Sciences identified two ancient birds, Presbyornis and Gastornis – of which Gastornis is the bigger one.
Researchers found only one toe bone of Gastornis on the Ellesmere Island (located within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago) which proves that the giant bird once lived in the Arctic. The toe bone found on Ellesmere matched the toe bones of a Gastornis fossil that was previously discovered in Wyoming. In any case, both fossils are evidence that the ancient birds lived in northern latitudes.
Professor Thomas Stidham of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said that the similarities between the Wyoming Gastornis fossil and the one found on the Ellesmere Island were so great that he could not tell the bones apart.
Gastornis weighed several hundred pounds and was about six feet (1.82 m) tall. The bird’s head size was about the same as that of the head of a modern-day horse, according to the researchers. Recent research also found that Gastornis was likely vegan – it ate fruits, leaves, and seeds.
Presbyornis, the other bird, was a lot smaller than Gastornis and it probably looked similar to today’s ducks and geese. The researchers only found one Presbyornis bone (as with the Gastornis fossils) – a fossilized humerus.
Jaelyn Eberle, an associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Curator of Fossil Vertebrates at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said that bird fossils on the Ellesmere Island are quite rare.
Currently, Ellesmere is one of the coldest places on Earth. Winter temperatures usually drop to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In the 1970s, researchers explored Ellesmere for the first time. According to scientists, millions of years ago, the Ellesmere Island used to be more like the south-eastern U.S., rather than Alaska. On Ellesmere, researchers found fossils from: fish, to crocodiles, to primates.
According to Eberle, knowing about the warm periods that occurred in the Arctic may give scientists a better idea of what to expect in the future in terms of new animal and plant populations.
Image Source: illvet. se