It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia.
Researchers have discovered that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest known birds ever, which could have been the source of meat for early humans.
It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, found in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggested a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers, and eggshell for early humans.
"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," said lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov in the study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear," he added.
It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 meters tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.
While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.
Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggested the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggested it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.