A BIRD three time bigger than an ostrich and the same weight as a fully grown polar bear once lived in Europe, according to a new study.
A chance discovery in a cave in Crimea suggests that early humans on the continent lived alongside some of the planet’s largest ever birds around 1.5million years ago.
Artist’s impression of a newly discovered giant species of bird that roamed Europe 1.5million years ago[/caption]
Experts previously believed that such gigantic birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as in Australia.
But the newly-discovered specimen, found in Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as big as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa once lived in Europe.
Researchers say it weighed about 450 kilos – or over 70 stone – and believe it may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.
Lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: “When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe.
The creature was about three times the size of an ostrich[/caption]
“However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story.
“We don’t have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450 kilos.
“This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear.”
It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of the animal.
The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall (11.5 feet), and would have towered above early humans.
It may have been flightless, but the researchers said it was also fast.
While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, Dr Zelenkov said the femur of the bird found in Crimea was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner.
It weighed as much as a polar bear[/caption]
The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds.
But speed may have been essential to the bird’s survival.
Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age.
They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.
A timeline of life on Earth
The history of the planet in years…
- 4.6billion years ago – the origin of Earth
- 3.8billion years ago – first life appears on Earth
- 2.1billion years ago – lifeforms made up of multiple cells evolve
- 1.5billion years ago – eukaryotes, which are cells that contain a nucleus inside of their membranes, emerge
- 550million years ago – first arthropods evolve
- 530million years ago – first fish appear
- 470million years ago – first land plants appear
- 380million years ago – forests emerge on Earth
- 370million years ago – first amphibians emerge from the water onto land
- 320million years ago – earliest reptiles evolve
- 230million years ago – dinosaurs evolve
- 200million years ago – mammals appear
- 150million years ago – earliest birds evolve
- 130million years ago – first flowering plants
- 100million years ago – earliest bees
- 55million years ago – hares and rabbits appear
- 30million years ago – first cats evolve
- 20million years ago – great apes evolve
- 7million years ago –first human ancestors appear
- 2million years ago – Homo erectus appears
- 300,000 years ago – Homo sapiens evolves
- 50,000 years ago – Eurasia and Oceania colonised
- 40,000 years ago – Neandethal extinction
Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago.
A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa.
Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe.
The researchers suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.
They said animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.
Dr Zelenkov added: “The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built.
“Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe’s distant past.”
The findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
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What do you think of the discovery? Let us know in the comments…
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