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June-March 2001

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Big Birds

What if Sesame Street was set two to six million years into the past? Would Mr. Hooper's store be inside a cave, would Ernie and Bert be both wearing loincloths, or would Snuffy be a mammoth rather than a snufflelafagus. Maybe or maybe not, but Big Bird would definitely have very interesting, if not terrifying, family members.

Throughout a large part of the Cenozoic Era, North and South America were unconnected. Large placental mammals were absent on the southern continent and powerful, flightless, carnivorous birds evolved there in the absence of mammalian competition.

These birds would have been a terrifying sight to behold, and what makes them amazing is their skill as a predator. They pursued their prey with the swiftness and ferocity of their velociraptor ancestors. In their time they were the supreme rulers of the southern continent, being able to take down almost anything, no matter how large.

One of these astonishing products of evolution is Onactornis or leader bird. This magnificent creature who lived at the late Pliocene, is the largest in the family standing more than nine feet tall, weighing at about 650 pounds, and possessing a powerful 15-inch bill. They sacrificed their ability to fly for powerful legs. Their legs could deliver crushing blows and their toes, armed with razor-sharp claws, could rip and tear through the thickest hides.

Another one of these killer birds was Titanus walleri. Despite being smaller than Onactornis, Titanus walleri had an advantage over it. Instead of having useless wings like Onactornis, evolution had endowed it with powerful arms with fingers and claws to grab hold of prey and tear them to pieces. Their claws and gigantic beaks were not all that Titanus walleri had to make them a terrifying sight, they were also able to run at forty miles per hour which truly made them bloodcurdling creatures.

These gigantic birds like Onactornis and Titanus sacrificed the gift of flight to become more efficient killers, but there are those who sacrificed nothing. Argentavus magnificus would have made blocked out the sun as it flew in prehistoric South America. It stood five feet from the ground and had an unbelievable wingspan of twenty seven feet. Argentavus used strong gusts of wind to be able to glide in the air much like modern-day condors.

Despite their amazing size and uncanny abilities, nothing could have prepared these gigantic birds for what was to come. At about two million years ago, forces under the earth were in an upheaval. For millions of years North and South America lay unconnected, but slowly drifted together, and when they were finally connected, tragedy struck the giant birds.

Large placental mammals came flooding in from the northern continent and competed with their avian counterparts. Changes in the terrain and in the climate due to the colliding of the two continents made the situation worse for the giant birds of the southern continent. After a while, competition and climatic change finally led to the demise of these undisputed avian emperors. By Lenard Stuart


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