giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"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. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"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 450kg. 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 from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. 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.

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 authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"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," says Zelenkov.

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bison

Archaeologists identify first prehistoric figurative cave art in Balkans

Archaeologists identify first prehistoric figurative cave art in Balkans

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina
Composite of digital tracings of 1, Bison 2, Ibex and 3, possible anthropomorphic figures, from cave art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

An international team, led by an archaeologist from the University of Southampton and the University of Bordeaux, has revealed the first example of Palaeolithic figurative cave art found in the Balkan Peninsula.

Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo worked with researchers from the universities of Cantabria (Spain), Newfoundland (Canada), Zagreb (Croatia) and the Archaeological Museum of Istria (Croatia) to study the paintings, which could be up to 34,000 years old.

The cave art was first discovered in 2010 in Romualdova Pećina ('Romuald's cave') at Istria in Croatia, when Darko Komšo, Director of the Archaeological Museum of Istria, noticed the existence of the remains of a red colour in a deep part of the cave.

Following his discovery, the team led by Dr Ruiz-Redondo and funded by the French State and the Archaeological Museum of Istria, with the support of Natura Histrica, undertook a detailed analysis of the paintings and their archaeological context.

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina ibex
Digital tracing of Ibex featured in rock art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

This led to the identification of several figurative paintings, including a bison, an ibex and two possible anthropomorphic figures, confirming the Palaeolithic age of the artworks. Furthermore, an excavation made in the ground below these paintings led to the discovery of a number of Palaeolithic age remains; a flint tool, an ochre crayon and several fragments of charcoal.

Radiocarbon dating of these objects show an estimated age of around 17,000 years and other indirect data suggest the paintings date to an even earlier period - at around 34,000-31,000 years ago. Further research will be conducted in order to establish the precise age of the rock art.

Findings are published in the journal Antiquity.

This discovery expands the so far sparse register of Palaeolithic art in south east Europe. It makes Romualdova Pećina the first site where figurative Palaeolithic rock art has been discovered in this area. Together with Badanj in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two are the only examples of rock art from the Palaeolithic period in the Balkans.

Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, a British Academy-funded Newton International Fellow at the University of Southampton and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bordeaux, said: "The importance of this finding is remarkable and sheds a new light on the understanding of Palaeolithic art in the territory of Croatia and the Balkan Peninsula, as well as its relationship with simultaneous phenomena throughout Europe."

A new project started by Dr Ruiz-Redondo and his team, funded by the British Academy, will develop further research at these two sites during the next few years.

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina bison
Digital tracing of Bison featured in rock art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

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