Scientists have now identified a fossil that was discovered near the Charleston airport — one of the biggest birds ever known to fly through the skies.
Pelagornis sandersi had a wingspan up to 24 feet (7.3 meters) when it lived around 25-28 million years ago, according to findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
The giant bird’s fossil was first discovered during excavation at the Charleston International Airport in 1983, but was never identified as a new species until this year.
“The species’ identity hasn’t changed, it just was never named,” Dan Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, who authored the research, told South Carolina Radio Network. “I guess it kind of sat on the backburner, really.”
Ksepka spent months examining the only known specimen of P.sandersi at the Charleston Museum (the new species is named after former museum curator Albert Sanders). A reproduction currently hangs from the ceiling in one of the museum’s exhibition halls.
The species is part of the pelagornithid family, massive sea birds that are distinguished by tooth-like spikes that line their jaws. Ksepka said the rock where the fossil was discovered would have been underwater at the time of the bird’s death. The silt and sands of the marine environment likely preserved the skeleton, he said.
“This is the only specimen of this particular species, but there are other bony-toothed birds known,” he said. “They’ve actually been found just about everywhere — Australia, New Zealand, and even Antarctica.”
Ksepka said the birds went extinct about 3 million years before humans first appeared.