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Tuesday, July 22 2014 7:17 AM EDT2014-07-22 11:17:13 GMT
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A fossil found in South Carolina has revealed a gigantic bird that apparently snatched fish while soaring over the ocean some 25 million to 28 million years ago.
Its estimated wingspan of around 21 feet is bigger than the height of a giraffe.
The skeleton was discovered in 1983 near the Charleston airport, but its first formal description was released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, who wrote the paper, said the creature probably did not land on water. And it was apparently clumsy on land.
The bird is named Pelagornis sandersi.
The new fossil was discovered by Charleston Museum volunteer James Malcom in 1983, when excavations began for a new terminal at the Charleston International Airport.
The presence of bony tooth-like spikes in the jaw allowed Ksepka to identify the find as a previously unknown species of the Pelagornithidae, an extinct group of giant seabirds.
The skeleton was very well-preserved, a rarity because of the paper-thin nature of the bones in these birds.
Now in the collections at the Charleston Museum, the fossil has been designated the type specimen of a new species named in honor of retired Charleston Museum curator Albert Sanders, who collected the fossil.
With a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, Pelagornis sandersi was more than twice as big as the Royal Albatross, the largest living flying bird.
"Pelagornis sandersi could have traveled for extreme distances while crossing ocean waters in search of prey," said Ksepka. "Pelagornithids were like creatures out of a fantasy novel - there is simply nothing like them around today."
These giant birds occurred all over the globe for tens of millions of years, but vanished during the Pliocene, just three million years ago.
Paleontologists remain uncertain about the cause of their demise.
Copyright 2014 WBTV. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.