Pelagornis Takes Flight at the Bruce

 Reconstruction of World’s Largest-Ever Flying Bird,  Pelagornis sandersi , identified by Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.

Reconstruction of World’s Largest-Ever Flying Bird, Pelagornis sandersi, identified by Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. Reconstruction art by Liz Bradford.

Pelagornis flies once more in the entrance of the Bruce Museum! We're big fans of Pelagornis here at the Bruce. In 2014 our very own Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Curator of Science, published a paper naming a new species of Pelagornis called Pelagornis sandersiPelagornis was a seabird, but don't go comparing it to any mere gull. With its wingspan between 20-24 feet, Pelagornis is the largest flying bird ever discovered. It lived 25 million years ago, though its relatives survived until 2.5 million years ago.

It is no easy feat to wrangle the largest flying bird ever, even when it's only bones.

 

We received Pelagornis on loan from the National Museum of Natural  History and Dr. Ksepka oversaw its transport personally to make sure it arrived at the Bruce safe and sound.

We decided to hang Pelagornis in the entrance of the museum so that it would greet every visitor that came through our doors. The ladders came out on a Monday morning when the museum was closed. It was time to get Pelagornis flying!


What does it take to get Pelagornis in the air? Four very steady people on four very tall ladders. Three of them held Pelagornis while the fourth attached the supporting wires and a fifth (myself) took photos of the occasion.

Pelagornis didn't have the easiest time getting aloft when it was alive either. Its short legs wouldn't have given it much power and it may have started from cliffs or hills to give it extra lift when taking off.


Collections Manager Tim Walsh cradled the head of Pelagornis protectively while Dan Buckley, our Exhibit Designer, strung it up. The pseudo-teeth on its bill are knobby beak extensions rather than true teeth. Pelagornis was a fish-eater and the pseudo-teeth helped it hold onto slippery and wriggling prey. 


The wings were attached next. With its long and narrow wings, Pelagornis was excellent at long distance flights and gliding. The albatross has a similar body plan.


Pelagornis is majestic even with a foot missing. Dr. Kspeka looks understandably delighted to be so close to an animal that he's devoted so much study to.

"Pelagornithids were like creatures out of a fantasy novel," said Dr. Ksepka. "There is simply nothing like them around today."

Now complete, Pelagornis flies over the guests of the Bruce Museum. Along with Pelagornis, you can see a video of James Gurney, the artist behind the celebrated series Dinotopia, painting a picture of Pelagornis for the April 2016 issue of Scientific American.

Pelagornis won't be visiting the Bruce forever, so come by and see for yourself how magnificent it is before it migrates back to the Smithsonian!

 

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow