Gastornis

The Gastornis was a genus of flightless birds that has given much to talk about.

It inhabited the planet after the extinction of the dinosaurs, during the Cenozoic Era, more specifically during the Paleogene period (about 55 to 40 million years ago) and has been classified within the group of birds.

This genus would have had a very dark and similar appearance to birds. It is often referred to as the bird of terror because of its terrifying image, although in reality it was a really peaceful animal.

On our website you will find all the information about the Gastornis you are looking for, read on and find out all about the bird of terror!

What does the name Gastornis mean?

The meaning of Gastornis is “the bird of Gaston”, a name that was given in honor of its discoverer the Frenchman Gaston Planté, who was an outstanding French scientist of the 19th century.

Although, it is also known as “bird of terror”. We’ll explain why this nickname is given a little later.

Description of the Gastornis

This large bird could reach 2 meters in height and weigh over 100 kilos.

The most remarkable thing about this animal is surely its head, which can be compared in size to that of a horse. In proportion to the body, it is also quite large with enormous muscles that would give it a powerful bite.

It had a large and powerful beak, with a small downward curve, very similar to the beak of parrots today, but without any kind of hook at the end as is usual in birds of prey.

It had a short, thick neck, composed of 13 vertebrae.

And as for its body, it was also robust and shortened.

Its wing bones indicate that it was a flightless bird, so it used its powerful legs to move.

Legs, which as we say, were large and strong and were prepared to run and support its weight. These legs were supported by “feet” that had four toes, just like parrots have today.

Obviously they were oviparous, laying eggs that would have been 24 x 10 cm in size according to the fossils found.

Indeed, as a bird, its body was covered by feathers, although there are doubts as to whether these were similar to hair (as if it were a down, to give you a better idea) or if, on the contrary, these feathers were similar to today’s flying birds.

This last idea is based on a feather found in the Green River Formation, (in Roan Creek, Colorado, USA) attributed to the Gastornis because of its large size, which is 24 cm long. In principle there are no more fundamentals.

The skull of the Gastornis is compared with the skull of the T-Rex, as they are very similar.
Hence the hypothesis that this bird could be one of the first predators to take the place of the large carnivorous dinosaurs.

Having made that small parenthesis, what is clear since 1980, after studying and performing a phylogenetic analysis of the relationships of the gastornites, is that they are the distant relatives of the ducks and the chajás. Something that has been confirmed in 2007 after another study on the same fact.

As for its behaviour, and despite its appearance, it is considered to be a very quiet animal; it used its legs and beak to dig and cut the plants, roots and fruits on which it fed.

It was indeed an herbivore, but we will tell you about that a little later.
And little more, because the strength it might have is believed to be used to compete and maintain its territory and to mate.

So the terrifying image of a predatory and ruthless bird will remain only in the movies. Because it’s clear that its appearance is what infuses it.

Where and when did the Gastornis live?

The Gastornis lived in Europe and North America from about 61 to 48 million years ago, which would correspond to the Cenozoic period.

About the habitat it is known that it was composed by forests, it is believed that of cypresses mainly, living in a warm climate.

Logically this is known from all its remains found in Asia, Europe and the United States. Although what would end up confirming this idea is the fact that he was found on Ellesmere Island, where it is known for sure that it was an area rich in fauna and flora, with a tropical climate, where crocodiles, giant tortoises, prehistoric animals similar to hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses also lived…

Today Ellesmere Island is a frozen desert, you know near the Arctic, where a great variety of these animals have been found, as well as plants.

Gastornis diet

Regarding its diet, it is still not very clear, some paleontologists point out that due to its large size and its enormous beak this could have been one of the first predators that emerged after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

This theory that they were carnivores took on much more strength when along with the remains found in the United States, skeletons of some small horses were also found, which they considered to be their prey.

That’s where the nickname “terror bird” comes from, and we commented on it at the beginning of the post.

Although this theory would begin to fade when analyzing the calcium isotopes of their bones, where it was found that their physical structure would correspond more to a herbivorous animal.

In addition, the hypothesis that it was a carnivorous bird was rejected when Gastornis’ footprints were found and no traces or claw marks were visible.

Claws are usually a characteristic feature and one could say that they are almost indispensable for carnivorous animals.

But the big question comes about his beak, which is of considerable size, and it is believed that it could have been used to break nines and to dig in the ground to look for roots and other types of tubers.

Theory of Gastornis extinction

It is believed to have become extinct due to the glaciations of the time.

Although it is estimated that it migrated to other places in search of a suitable climate where it could feed, it did not know how to adapt to the new circumstances and disappeared.

But there is also a theory that because they nested in the ground without any kind of defense or protection on their part, the eggs were easy prey for predators such as the Titanomyrma, a giant ant of the time.

This fact would result in a decrease in the birth rate and consequently its extinction over time.

Gastornis discovery

The first remains of this bird were found in 1855, in the formation of Argile Plastique in the French Commune of Meudon.

This would be the first of five already known species of this great bird, which is called the Gastornis Parisiensis species.

More fossil remains of this bird (skull and mandible) were found in 1874, but this time they were found in the north of the American continent, to be more exact in the state of New Mexico in the De Wasatch Formation.

The discoverer on this occasion was the Philippine paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who had some partial parts of the skeleton and by analyzing these remains he was able to prove that it was a Gastornis. Although this time it was another species of the same animal, which Dr. Cope called in 1876 as Gastornis Giganteus.

Although the most complete finding and that helped to understand more about the behavior and characteristics of this bird was in 1916, by an expedition made by the American Museum of Natural History in the Willwood Formation, in the Bighorn Basin, where one of the main tributaries of the Yellowstone River (USA) ends up.

This finding was first written about in 1917, knowing much better, as we say, how this bird was when it found a complete skeleton and skull.

Other fossils of this bird were also found in other European countries and were classified as two more types of the same species, which were called Gastornis russeli, found in 1992 and Gastornis sarasini, found in 1929.

Fossils of a species called Gastornis xichuanensis have also been found in the Chinese province of Henan. Although here the finding has been small, since there is only one tibiotarso.

One of the most recent finds was in Canada, more precisely on Ellesmere Island, very close to the Arctic Circle.

Here what has been found is a finger bone that when comparing it with the skeleton found in 1917 it was possible to verify that it was also from Gastornis.

With all these findings it has been possible to reconstruct how this great bird would look and to decipher its behavior.

Some curiosities about the Gastornis

We are going to tell you some curiosities about this bird that are still “mere curiosities”:

Looking at the physical reconstruction of this “bird of terror”, some researchers believe that some species of parrot today are very similar to this bird, so it follows that the Gastornis may be an ancestor of parrots.
The Gastornis can also be seen in the first chapter of the BBC series “Walking among the Beasts” in which it hunts small mammals that were neglected.