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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balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera

The largest fossil whale ever found

The largest fossil whale ever found

New fossils shed light on the evolution of extreme gigantism of whales in a study involving palaeontologists from the University of Pisa

 

A new study just published in the international journal Biology Letters, published by the prestigious Royal Society of London, describes the enormous skeleton of a fossil blue whale, discovered in 2006 on the edge of Lake San Giuliano near Matera (southern Italy). This research involved the palaeontologists Giovanni BianucciAlberto CollaretaWalter LandiniCaterina Morigi and Angelo Varola of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of PisaAgata Di Stefano of the Department of Biological Geological and Environmental Sciences of the University of Catania, and Felix Marx of the Directorate Earth and History of Life of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Excavation of the fossil skeleton of Balaenoptera cf. musculus on the edge of San Giuliano Lake, Matera, Italy (photo G. Bianucci).

Giovanni Bianucci, who took part in the excavation and coordinated the study of the fossil, explains: "The shape of its bones clearly identifies the Matera fossil as a close relative of the living blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal that ever lived. This idea also fits with the estimated length of the new specimen, which at 26 meters is the largest whale fossil ever described, and perhaps the largest whale that ever swam in the Mediterranean Sea. This finding is important not just because it is a world record, but above all because of its implications for the evolution of extreme size".

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Comparison between the ear bones of the extant blue whale and the fossil from Matera, highlighting similar features (photo and composition by F. Marx and G. Bianucci).

Gigantism is a phenomenon that has emerged, independently and at different times, in many vertebrate lineages. Large body size is thought to confer some form of competitive advantage, but exactly how and why it evolved remains a matter of debate. In recent years, research into vertebrate gigantism has focused especially on baleen whales (Mysticeti), which include the largest animals on Earth. By far the biggest is the blue whale, which can exceed 30 meters in length and reach up to 180 tonnes in weight.

Skull of Balaenoptera cf. musculus from Matera (left), next to an explanatory drawing showing the position of the preserved bones in the complete skull (photo of the skull by Akhet s.r.l.; drawing and composition by G. Bianucci and F. Marx).

Unlike most other mammals, mysticetes lack teeth, and instead use comb-like keratinous plates hanging from their upper jaw to trap tiny prey like krill. Their extremely large size has been interpreted as a way to avoid predation, e.g. by the - now extinct - gigantic sperm whale Livyatan melvillei, or the equally impressive megatooth shark Carcharocles megalodon; or as the result of a recent change in the availability and distribution of prey, which would have forced whales to move between distant feeding and/or breeding grounds.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Artistic reconstruction of the Matera whale (drawing by Alberto Gennari).

"Most fossil whales are much smaller than their living relatives" explains Alberto Collareta, "which has led to the idea that baleen whale gigantism is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, one recent study modelled the evolution of mysticete body size over time, and found that extremely large whales only arose during the past 2-3 million years. Unfortunately, the mysticete fossil record of this period is rather poor, which means that scientists so far had to rely mainly on data from the living species".

Fossils from the past 2-3 million years are rare, because sea levels during this period were often lower than today. Most of the fossils that formed were drowned when the water rose again, and now lie inaccessible beneath the ocean floor. There are, however, some exceptions, such as the new blue whale from Matera. Agata di Stefano and Caterina Morigi analysed microfossils found with the specimen, which showed that the animal lived sometime between 1.49 and 1.25 million years ago. Its size demonstrates that extremely large whales already existed back then, and likely arose earlier than previously thought. 

"Together, the Matera whale and some other, even older finds from Peru show that large whales evolved earlier, and probably more gradually, than previously thought. These ocean giants play a crucial role as ecosystem engineers, and probably have done so for quite some time." says Felix Marx.

Giovanni Bianucci concludes: "The profound impact of baleen whales on the modern ocean highlights the need to understand their deep-time ecology. Doing so will help us gain a better understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of the marine environment, and the delicate balance of the biological communities within it".

Mysticete body length plotted against time. Red circles indicate the position of the Matera whale and three new fossil mysticetes from Peru (diagram modified by Graham J. Slater et al.; drawing of Balaenoptera cf. musculus by Carl Buell).

 

Press release from the University of Pisa