Link #88: There Was Once a Bird That Ate Horses!



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Link #88: There Was Once a Bird That Ate Horses!

Paraphysornis brasiliensis, a terror bird from the Early Miocene of Brazil, pencil drawing, digital coloring. Image credit: Snowmanradio, cc3.0

If you just think about the various methods and techniques that we have devised for hunting down the ages, you’ll find that we are one of the most ingenious and capable species on the planet. Take, for example, the way ancient Filipinos used yoyos to take down prey or even attack human foes, as we described in our earlier post.

As good as we humans have been at hunting; we’re still nothing compared to the prehistoric predators. The best example of this is not even the dinosaurs. It is the prehistoric gigantic bird that lived in South America and ate horses for dinner! Don’t believe us? Find out about these birds, the ‘Terror Birds’.

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How Big Were Terror Birds?

Size comparison between the terror birds Brontornis (2.8 metres) and Kelenken (here assumed to be about 3 meters tall, actual size is disputed). Image credit: 08pateldan, GFDL.

The scientific name of the appropriately named Terror Birds is Phorusrhacidae (plural) or Phorusrhacos (singular). These birds could grow up to be as tall as 10 feet with their skulls being as large as 60 centimetres long.

Terror Birds were carnivorous and mainly hunted smaller- to medium-sized mammals on the South American continent. Since horses were abundant on the continent at that time, this meant that the Terror Birds’ diet consisted of a lot of horse meat.

How Did Terror Birds Hunt?

A drawing of the terror bird Phorusrhacos by Charles R. Knight published in Animals of the Past, 1901. PD image.

Since their name includes ‘birds’, you would think that these gigantic creatures out of horror films would hunt you down from the skies. However, Terror Birds were completely flightless and land bound.

Because they couldn’t fly at all, they could only hunt on the ground. However, they were well equipped to do this as well. They had beaks that were large, strong, and wickedly curved to form hooks. This is a trait that is currently common with birds that eat meat.

In order to imagine what this means, we advise you to think about ostriches but imagine them to be 10 feet tall. There were two ways by which the Terror Birds would take down their prey.

What Did Terror Birds Use to Hunt Their Prey?

Body structure of the terror bird Paraphysornis by Ornitholestes, PD image.

The first of these ways was hooking the prey and throwing it against something solid like the ground or rocks. Palaeontologists suggest that this method of attacking prey also broke its bones which made it easier for the birds to tear apart their prey before swallowing it.

The other method was to use the beaks to attack the prey in critical parts of their bodies so as to render them immovable as quickly as possible. However, beaks weren’t the only weapons that Terror Birds were blessed with.

They also had claws at the end of their short wings. These claws could be used for two things. The first was to hold down struggling prey so as to allow the beak to come into play and the other was to attack opponents of the same size and style of attacks.

Even though the wings of Terror Birds were small and virtually useless, they could compensate with their long, extremely agile and super-fast legs. A Terror Bird would basically stand camouflaged in some trees and attack its prey with devastating speed when it came closer.

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