Illustration of the Pelagornis sandersi, pseudoteeth and all.
Check out the pseudoteeth on this monster bird, Pelagornis sandersi, which is the biggest-ever avian capable of flight known to man. Photo by Reuters
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Reuters
Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, studies the skull of Pelagornis sandersi. Photo by Reuters

You think turkeys are big. The charmingly-named Pelagornis sandersi makes turkeys, and albatrosses and eagles, look positively pitiful.

While the glorious albatross boasts a wingspan maxing out at 3.5 meters, from tip to tip the Pelagornis' wings spanned somewhere from 6 meters to 7.4 meters, say paleontologists who found a fossil of the monster bird in South Carolina. How much is 7.4 meters? Think three NBA players lying head to toe and you've got it.

Size alone did not make it unique. It had a series of bony, tooth-like projections from its long jaws that helped it scoop up fish and squid along the eastern coast of North America, say the scientists.

Sad to say, the Pelagornis is long dead. It lived 25 to 28 million years ago. But could anything that large actually fly? Yes.

"Anyone with a beating heart would have been struck with awe," said paleontologist Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This bird would have just blotted out the sun as it swooped overhead. Up close, it may have called to mind a dragon."

Stumpy legs and pseudoteeth

With its short, stumpy legs, it may not have been graceful on land, but its long, slender wings made it a highly efficient glider able to remain airborne for long stretches despite its size.

It belonged to an extinct group called pelagornithids that thrived from about 55 million years ago to 3 million years ago. The last birds with teeth went extinct 65 million years ago in the same calamity that killed the dinosaurs.

But this group developed "pseudoteeth" to serve the same purpose. They lived on every continent including Antarctica. "The cause of their extinction, however, is still shrouded in mystery," Ksepka said.

"All modern birds lack teeth, but early birds such as Archaeopteryx had teeth inherited from their non-bird, dinosaurian ancestors. So in this case the pelagornithids did not evolve new true teeth, which are in sockets, but rather were constrained by prior evolution to develop tooth-like projections of their jaw bones," said Paul Olsen, a Columbia University paleontologist who did not take part in the study.

These birds lived very much like some of the pterosaurs, the extinct flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs that achieved the largest wingspans of any flying creatures, reaching about 36 feet (11 meters).

Its fossils were found in 1983 when construction workers were building a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport. Its skull is nearly complete and in great condition, and scientists also have important wing and leg bones, the shoulder blade and wishbone.

Until now, the birds with the largest-known wingspans were the slightly smaller condor-like Argentavis magnificens, which lived about 6 million years ago in Argentina, and another pelagornithid, Pelagornis chilensis, that lived in Chile at about the same time.

At about 22-40 kg, Pelagornis sandersi was far from the heaviest bird in history, with numerous extinct flightless birds far more massive. But unlike them, it could take wing.