Enormous Prehistoric Birds May Have Roamed the Canadian Arctic

Illustration by Marlin Peterson
Illustration by Marlin Peterson / Illustration by Marlin Peterson

An enormous bird terrorized the shrubs of northern Canada around 53 million years ago. Researchers say fossil evidence of the flightless bird Gastornis was found in the Canadian Arctic—much further north than anywhere the creature had been found before. The findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

We’ve known about Gastornis for quite some time now, but previous fossils have all been discovered further south, in Wyoming, Europe, and Asia. For many years, paleontologists believed the six-foot-tall bird with a horse-sized head was a carnivore. More recent research suggested that Gastornis’s monstrous beak was used for tearing leaves, nuts, and fruits off of plants. That’s right: this nightmare bird was a vegan. 

Paleontologists found a large, fossilized phalanx (toe bone) on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the 1970s. The bone looked like it might have belonged to Gastornis, so they recorded it as such, then put it away. The bone lay unexamined for decades until integrative biologist Thomas Stidham and geologist Jaelyn Eberle took an interest. 

“We knew there were a few bird fossils from up there, but we also knew they were extremely rare,” Eberle said in a press release.

So did this toe really belong to Gastornis? Eberle and Stidham compared the Ellesmere Island bone to those found earlier in Wyoming. The bones were not only nearly identical, but very close in age. 

The researchers also took a closer look at an Ellesmere Island humerus (wing bone) assumed to have belonged to the lanky, extinct bird, Presbyornis. That, too, was a match with Presbyornis bones found elsewhere. “I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly 4000 kilometers (2500 miles) to the north,” Stidham said in the press release. 

As always, it is worth noting that these conclusions were drawn from a single bone of a single animal, and therefore amount to highly educated guesses about what these birds looked like, how they behaved, and what they ate.

Stidham and Eberle say their findings have implications for climate change. Although Ellesmere Island today is frozen solid, it was likely much warmer during the Eocene Epoch, making it more hospitable for prehistoric reptiles, primates, and birds like Gastornis and Presbyornis. They say that while Gastornis may have lived at Ellesmere throughout the winter, they're not sure whether Presbyronis migrated there or took up residence year-round.  

The Earth is warming again. “Permanent Arctic ice, which has been around for millennia, is on track to disappear,” Eberle said. “I’m not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere Island any time soon. 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.”