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Giant, Flightless Bird Roamed Arctic 50 Million Years Ago

First Posted: Feb 12, 2016 12:08 PM EST

A giant, flightless bird with a head the size of a horse's indeed roamed the high Arctic about 53 million years ago. In a recent study, researchers analyzed the first and only fossil evidence that belonged to a giant Arctic bird known as "Gastornis." The evidence is the fossilized toe bone of the 6-foot tall, several-hundred-pound bird that wandered Ellesmere Island.

The Gastornis fossil was discovered in 1970s and was initially known as 'Diatryma.' Ever since its discovery, researchers have conducted numerous studies, however this study is the first to examine and describe the fossil. Researchers have also discovered Gastornis fossils in parts of Asia and Europe.

"We knew there were a few bird fossils from up there, but we also knew they were extremely rare," Jaelyn J. Eberle, coauthor of the study, said in a news release.

Initially researchers thought that Gastornis was a scary carnivore. It turns out that Gastornis was a vegetarian who snacked on hard fruits, nuts and seeds with the help of its massive beak.

Researchers believe that during the early Eocene Epoch, some 53 million years ago, Ellesmere Island's environment was more like the cypress swamps in the southeast U.S. which was home to alligators, turtles, primates and hippo and rhino-like animals.

Ellesmere Island is now one of the coldest and driest places on Earth, with temperatures that drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter. Ellesmere Island has been known for its diversity in plants and animals, however, its brutal winter was one of the biggest challenges to whatever life existed on the island.

"Permanent Arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear. I'm not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere Island any time soon," Eberle said. "But what we know about past warm intervals in the Arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future."

The findings of this study were published in Scientific Reports.

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