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Pelagornis sandersi, the Largest Flying Sea Bird

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Move over, Big Bird. There’s a new feathered giant in town, and this one can actually fly.

Well, it could fly when it was alive. Pelagornis sandersi (Pelagornis S. for short) has been dead for about 25 million years, but we only just identified its remains [PDF].

Fossilized bones from this giant sea bird were originally discovered in South Carolina in 1983 when workers were excavating to create a new terminal for the Charleston International Airport (during the bird’s life, Charleston would have been submerged under 33 feet of water). But the bird wasn’t studied until recently when Dr. Daniel Ksepka, the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., got his hands on it.

"This is pushing the boundary of what we know about avian size,” Ksepka said, “and I'm very confident that the wingspan is the largest we've seen in a bird capable of flight."

How large? Pelagornis S. could spread its wings to span about 24 feet. For reference, that’s the width of an official FIFA soccer goal from pole to pole. It belongs to a family of seabirds called Pelagornithids, which lived all over the world and only became extinct about three million years ago. These birds were characterized by the bony teeth on the outside of their beaks, which they used to impale their prey—probably sea snacks like eels and squid.

But this bird weighed close to 50 pounds. How did it take flight? Researchers think it had to get a good, long running start like a hang glider. Once aloft, its long, slender wings prevented drag and helped it ride wind currents for extended periods of time without needing to expel energy by flapping. "I think they just waited on the beach for a strong wind to carry them aloft," Ksepka said.

The previous record holder for longest wingspan—23 feet wide—belonged to the extinct Argentavis magnificens. This bird also had to get a running start because it was too heavy to take flight from a standstill. Today, the title goes to the royal albatross, which spans just 11.5 feet.

Researchers aren’t sure what killed the Pelagornithids, but they hope to find out. “Pelagornithids were like creatures out of a fantasy novel—there is simply nothing like them around today,” Ksepka said [PDF].

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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