Temporal range: Late Miocene
|An artist's illustration of Argentavis magnificens|
Campbell & Tonni, 1980
Campbell & Tonni, 1980
Argentavis is an Avian from late Miocene Argentina and the biggest flying bird ever. Argentavis magnificens ("magnificent Argentine bird", or more literally "magnificent silver bird") is one of the largest flying birds ever known, possibly surpassed in wingspan only by the recently discovered Pelagornis sandersi. A. magnificens, sometimes called the giant teratorn, is an extinct species known from three sites from the late Miocene of central and northwestern Argentina, where a good sample of fossils have been obtained.
The single known humerus (upper arm bone) specimen of Argentavis is somewhat damaged. Even so, it allows a fairly accurate estimate of its length in life. Argentavis's humerus was only slightly shorter than an entire human arm. The species apparently had stout, strong legs and large feet which enabled it to walk with ease. The bill was large, rather slender, and had a hooked tip with a wide gape.
Argentavis had an estimated wing span of 5.09–6.07 meters (16.7–19.9 feet) (depending on the method used for scaling, i.e. regression analyses or comparisons with the California condor), a height of circa 1.5–2 meters (4.9–6.6 feet), and a mass of approximately 70–72 kilograms (154–159 lbs). This made it the largest bird until another extinct species, Pelagornis sandersi, was described in 2014 as having a larger size (although only weighing 22–40 kilograms). For comparison, the living bird with the largest wingspan is the wandering albatross, at 3.6 meters (12 feet). Since A. magnificens is known to have been a land bird, another good point of comparison is the Andean condor, one of the largest extant land birds, with a wingspan of up to 3.2 meters (10 feet) and weight of up to 15 kilograms (33 lbs), and which is not too distantly related to Argentavis.
The ability to fly is not a simple question of weight ratios, except in extreme cases; size and structure of the wing must also be taken into account. As a rule of thumb, a wing loading of 25 kg/m2 is considered the limit for avian flight. The heaviest extant flying birds are known to weigh up to 21 kilograms (46 lbs) (there are several contenders, among which are the European great bustard and the African kori bustard). A mute swan, which may have personally lost the power of flight due to extreme weight, was found to have weighed 23 kilograms (51 lbs). Meanwhile, the sarus crane is the tallest flying bird alive, at up to 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) tall, standing about as high as Argentavis due to its long legs and neck.
The largest known flying creatures overall are not birds, but instead the azhdarchid pterosaurs of the Cretaceous. The wingspans of larger azhdarchids, such as Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx, have been estimated to exceed 10 meters (33 feet), with less conservative estimates being 12 meters (39 feet) or more. Mass estimates for these azhdarchids are on the order of 200–250 kilograms (440–550 lbs).
Currently accepted estimates for the size of Argentavis are:
- Wingspan: 5.09–6.07 metres (16.7–19.9 ft)
- Wing area: 8.11 m2 (87.3 sq ft)
- Wing loading: 84.6 N/m2 (1.77 lbs/ft2)
- Body length: 1.26 m (4.1 ft)
- Height: 1.5–2 m (4.9–6.6 ft)
- Mass: 70–72 kg (154–159 lb)
Comparison with extant birds suggests it laid one or two eggs with a mass of somewhat over 1 kg (smaller than an ostrich egg) every two years. Climate considerations make it likely that the birds incubated over the winter, mates exchanging duties of incubating and procuring food every few days, and that the young were independent after some 16 months, but not fully mature until aged about a dozen years. Mortality must have been very low; to maintain a viable population less than about 2% of birds may have died each year. Of course, Argentavis suffered hardly any predation, and mortality was mainly from old age, accidents and disease.
From the size and structure of its wings it is inferred that A. magnificens flew mainly by soaring, using flapping flight only during short periods. It is probable that it used thermal currents as well. It has been estimated that the minimal velocity for the wing of A. magnificens is about 11 m/s or 40 kilometres per hour (25 mph). Especially for takeoff, it would have depended on the wind. Although its legs were strong enough to provide it with a running or jumping start, the wings were simply too long to flap effectively until the bird was some height off the ground. However, skeletal evidence suggests that its breast muscles were not powerful enough for wing flapping for extended periods. Argentavis may have used mountain slopes and headwinds to take off, and probably could manage to do so from even gently sloping terrain with little effort. It may have flown and lived much like the modern Andean condor, scanning large areas of land from aloft for carrion. The climate of the Andean foothills in Argentina during the late Miocene was warmer and drier than today, which would have further aided the bird in staying aloft atop thermal updrafts.
Argentavis's territories measured probably more than 500 km2, which the birds screened for food, possibly utilizing a generally north-south direction to avoid being slowed by adverse winds. This species seems less aerodynamically suited for predation than its relatives. It probably preferred to scavenge for carrion, and it is possible that it habitually chased metatherian carnivores such as Thylacosmilidae from their kills. Unlike extant condors and vultures, the other species of teratorns generally had long, eagle-like beaks and are believed to have been active predators, being less ponderous than Argentavis. When hunting actively, A. magnificens would probably have swooped from high above onto their prey, which they usually would have been able to grab, kill, and swallow without landing. Skull structure suggests that it ate most of its prey whole rather than tearing off pieces of flesh.
Argentavis has broken the record for being the largest flying bird ever.