Colorado – A bird called Gastornis with a height of about 6 feet lived in the Arctic about 53 million years ago, according to a new study recently published online in Scientific Reports.

The giant flightless bird’s toe bone was found in the 1970s and had been in the collection of the Canadian Museum of nature, but it had never been described until in this paper.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the University of Colorado Boulder determined that the curious bird lived in the Arctic Circle on Ellesmere Island. Study co-author CU-Boulder’s Jaelyn Eberle said that it had been thought there was a giant bird up there but its fossils had never been examined.

Gastornis was probably a year-around resident, compared to modern day ducks and geese that migrate through the Arctic, according to Eberle. She said the bird would have had plenty of food there and would have had no reason to spend its energy migrating elsewhere.

Gastornis species were very large birds, and have traditionally been considered to be predators of small mammals. Credits: Taringa/Wikipedia

Old fossil collections may enclose interesting insights

Eberle pointed out that there are lots of interesting discoveries paleontologists can make in collections that have been found since a long time ago but no one has described. She and lead author Thomas Stidham compared the single toe bone to those of similar bird fossils found in different locations of the world.

They reached the conclusion that it may be of the same genus as other large birds discovered in mid-latitude locations such as Wyoming and Colorado. “I think what is interesting is that the toe is virtually identical to specimens from Wyoming. The difference is they are 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) apart. That is kind of strange”, commented Eberle.

Weighing several hundred pounds, the giant bird would have been about the size of an adult with a head about the size of a horse’s, as a report by Discovery News describes it. And while researchers previously thought that it was a terrifying carnivore, other experts recently found that it was actually a vegan. The Gastornis used to tear at foliage, seeds, nuts and hard fruit with its big beak.

According to researchers, fossil evidence reveals that Ellesmere Island, adjacent to Greenland, was home to alligators, turtles, tapirs, primates and animals similar to hippos and rhinos.

The skull of Gastornis was huge, compared to the body and it is powerfully built. Credits: Reconstruction by Jaime Chirinos/Wikipedia

Climate Change impacts on animals and plants in the Arctic

The study of the huge flightless bird provides hints about the impacts of climate change on Arctic life. As paleontologists were able to closer examine the toe bone of the creature and compare it to similar fossils, they found some climate change implications.

Researchers believe the Gastornis, as well as other mammals and reptiles in the Arctic fauna most likely over-wintered the region. The climate in Ellesmere Islands is milder, but the species experienced long and dark winter nights.

The presence of the extinct Gastornis sheds lights on the potential migration patterns that the same modern species may experience in the future. Warming temperatures like in the Eocene epoch are likely to attract new residents to the Arctic Circle, researchers say.

Ancient Arctic ice will soon disappear, pointed out Eberle. However, she clarified that giant tortoises and alligators are not likely going back to Ellesmere Islands in the near future. But she remarked that scientists can predict changes in animal and plant populations by studying the patterns of warming in the past.

After the dinosaurs died out, we apparently got nasty bird creatures. This thing is about my height. Credits: Mark Fowler/Wikipedia

Warming temperatures threaten food security

Study authors remarked the importance of healthy habitats for the survival of species. Animals and plants need to live in places where the temperature is right for them. For example, polar bears lose hunting ground as the arctic ice melts because warmer water is not suitable for salmon, trout and other species that essentially need cold water to survive.

Furthermore, climate change affects the food supply of migratory birds, since they follow a schedule for flowers, foraging insects, and plant seeds. Climate change disrupts this schedule and, therefore, impairs food search, leaving some birds with rotten food for the whole winter.

Species need very specific conditions in their area of settlement and any slight change to their usual habitats causes unwanted effects to health and to the entire ecosystem as a whole.

Source: Discovery News