From the collections, Part 4

I made reference to this specimen back in October, in the comments on the post about Carmel Church birds. This is VMNH’s only specimen of a pseudodontorn.

Pseudodontorns (Family Pelagornithidae) were gigantic soaring birds thought to be related to pelicans. They get their name from the serration on the beak, which make the beak look like it has teeth. Pseudodontorns range from the Oligocene to the Pliocene, and are the largest known flying birds, with wingspans up to 20 feet or more. Here’s a reconstruction on exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum:

The VMNH specimen is the proximal end of the left right humerus. The specimen is not from Carmel Church, but instead it’s from the Mill Pond Creek locality in Hanover County, Virginia. It was found in one of the jackets of a whale skeleton that was collected in 1969 after being exposed by flooding caused by Hurricane Camille. It comes from Bed 14 of the Calvert Formation, which is the same bed we’re excavating at Carmel Church. So far as I have been able to determine, only four other pseudodontorn bones have ever been reported from Virginia, all of them from Calvert Bed 14 in Westmoreland County.

It turns out that this is a rather interesting specimen, even as incomplete as it is. It’s a very close match in size and shape to Pelagornis sp. 2 of Olson and Rasmussen (2001), from the Lee Creek Mine in North Carolina (either early Miocene or early Pliocene in age). Here is the Lee Creek Mine specimen figured by Olson and Rasmussen next to the Mill Pond Creek specimen, to the same scale (the Lee Creek Mine specimen is the right humerus, so they’re mirror images):

What makes this interesting is that the Lee Creek pseudodontorns are much larger than those previously described from the Calvert Formation, and are in fact among the largest known psedodontorns. In addition to being a rare Virginia record of this family, it may also represent the largest pseudodontorn ever found in the Calvert Formation.

Reference: Olson, S. L. and P. C. Rasmussen, 2001. Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, in C. E. Ray and D. J. Bohaska, eds., Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleontology No. 90, p. 233-365.

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6 Responses to From the collections, Part 4

  1. Doug Shore says:

    Really? The largest flying birds ever? I always read that the taratorns were the biggest flying birds.

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    The largest teratorn, Argentavis from the Late Miocene of Argentina, had an estimated wingspan of 6-7 meters, which is about the same as estimates of the largest pseudodontorns. So, I should technically say that pseudodontorns are, with teratorns, the largest known flying birds.

    Neither group is known from anything even approaching a complete skeleton, so there is probably some margin of error in the size estimates for both groups.

  3. Doug says:

    The Santa Barbara Museum holds the holotype of Osteodontornis (search my photo stream for it), which looks like a bid of about 15 feet. Aiolornis, listed often as the largest flying bird in the norther hemisphere, is listed at 17 feet. Then argetavis is listed at around 25 to 27 feet. Either we need more material (not likely given the fragile nature of bird bones) or a better method for estimating size based on fragmentary remains.

    I have only heard of two pseudontorns: Osteodontornis and Pelagornis. Are there any more to the group? Who is cited as the biggest among them?

  4. Alton Dooley says:

    The biggest estimate I’ve heard of for Argentavis is 7 meters, which is only 23 feet (if I recall correctly, that’s what the authors stated).

    There are at least 10 named genera of pseudodontorns, according to the Paleobiology Database. (Apparently they also go back further than I thought, to the late Eocene.) Pelagornis is among the largest genera, but I don’t know if it’s THE largest. Olson and Rasmussen were clearly of the opinion that there were multiple species of Pelagornis at Lee Creek Mine.

    Olson has stated several times over the years that he is reviewing and revising the Pelagornithidae, but as far as I know that hasn’t been published yet.

  5. Doug says:

    I have heard Argentavis range from 19 to 27 feet, so i guess you were “in the zone”. I had seen a skeleton of Pelagornis at the Smithsonian but it did’nt look much larger than the Teratornis i have seen at the tar pits. But that was a long time ago so my memory is a bit fuzzy.

  6. George says:

    Butch great find. I was collecting with a long time fossil collector who found a partial mandible from this parrot from hell. I was so stumpted with the find Wally donated it to the USNM and in a few months I found out what it was. When I talk about a parrot I had one for years, it would hunk some skin when in a bad feather day.

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