When Flightless Birds Ruled the Land: The “Terror” Birds of the New World

A "Terror Bird" Titanis walleri, Florida Museum of Natural History. A giant bird that once roamed florida.  Image credit: Wikipedia

A “Terror Bird” Titanis walleri, Florida Museum of Natural History. A giant bird that once roamed florida. Image credit: Wikipedia

Dinosaurs and large mammals like mammoths get all the attention but the fossil record is full of amazing animals from ages past that haven’t yet been brought to the public eye through a Pixar movie. I thought the moas from New Zealand (see Consider the Moa) would be my last word on flightless birds. But as I was reading about the moa I ran across literature about the “terror birds”  that really captivated me because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard that much about them before.   The so-called terror birds (the Phorusrhacidae) consist of 18 described species in 14 genera of birds that were all flightless and probably related to modern-day raptors.  They are all preserved as fossils in rocks just above where the last dinosaurs are found until the recent past (spanning from 62 to 2 million years ago).  All of them were flightless birds with large beaks and many of them were very large making them the largest of all birds to have ever lived.   The wings of all of these birds were very small or practically nonexistent.  You could think of them as really really scary ostriches.

Titanis Walleri, fossilized Terror bird skull.  Image: Scientific American, February 1994.

Fossilized terror bird skull.  Larger ones have been found in the past couple of years.  Image: Scientific American, February 1994.

Many of them would have towered over the tallest man and some were either scavengers or actively caught mammals, possible the size of goats and sheep, reptiles and other birds for food.   These birds have been described as the primary predator of South America after the time of the dinosaurs though some recent evidence suggests they could have been primarily herbivorous.   There was at least one large (4-6 feet tall) species found in Florida.  It is very difficult for me to image just what it would have been like to have had groups of 6 to 10-foot birds roaming the plains hunting animals.  Although I think it would be awesome to see one of these from afar, running into a bird more than 6 feet tall with a head the size of horse would be very scary.  Look at #5 in the reconstructions below to get an idea of just how ferocious these birds may have looked.   One can’t help but notice from the skeletons that these birds appear very reminiscent of several lineages of dinosaurs including the T. rex.

Image linked from:  http://getouterspace.tumblr.com/post/25857819106/giant-birds-camelidae-and-giraffidae

Size comparison of various living and extinct flightless birds.   The largest ones here are all extinct including the moa, elephant bird from Madagascar, and terror birds from South and North America.  Image linked from: http://getouterspace.tumblr.com/post/25857819106/giant-birds-camelidae-and-giraffidae

Where do these birds fit in the creationist timeline?

The Red-legged Seriema. A possible relative of the terror birds.  This is all that is left after the invasion of South America by canines and cats (leopards) probably brought an end to the large flightless birds. Image: Wikipedia.

The Red-legged Seriema. A possible relative of the terror birds. This is all that is left after the invasion of South America by canines and cats (leopards) probably brought an end to the large flightless birds. Image: Wikipedia.

These are some really awesome birds. If they were hanging out on Earth not long ago you would think we would have had some eyewitness reports.  But alas, they are all just fossils (except for the one pictures to the right which may represent a small descendant of the terror birds).  Creationists say that all bird kinds would have survived on Noah’s ark and disembarked only  4 to 6 thousands years ago.  How were these flightless birds able to walk all the way to South America live there and get fossilized before man arrived?  Although I can’t find any speculation by young earth creationists (YECs) about these birds specifically, based on what we have seen in my Ostrich series I expect they might envoke some sort of super speed evolution by which a flighted bird might have devolved into a flighless bird and turned into all the species that are found in the fossil record.     Just like we saw with ostriches, moa and other flightless birds, the tendency is to want to treat these birds as having flight capable ancestors and so explain their inability to fly as a “mutation disorder.”   These huge birds seem to have been all over South America at one time. Did they really evolve from an ancestor that could fly and then develop into these massive birds that preyed on other animals in a matter of just a few hundred years?  Where then are the intermediate fossils or so-called missing link fossils?  If young earth creationists (YECs) can claim that evolutionists have problems with missing links it seems apparent that in cases like this, creationists have the same problem.

There is a great diversity of these birds in the fossil record although they all have tiny to missing wings, dense bones, massive beaks etc… If God did not create all of these species as they are in the fossil record but “evolved” them from a smaller flight capable ancestor on the ark where are the intermediate fossils and remains?  Evolutionists would point to raptor-like bird fossils from the time of dinosaurs as the ancestors of these birds. It does seem like they did have flying ancestors but just like the ostrich, their large size and changing ecological conditions after their dinosaur cousins went extinct allowed them to adapt to a flightless lifestyle.

The first bird (A) is living but the rest are various species of terror birds all of which are extinct.  “Reconstructions of some phorusrhacids compared to the extant Cariama. (A) Cariama cristata; (B) Mesembriornis milneedwardsi; (C) Psilopterus bachmanni; (D) Andalgalornis steuletti; (E) Phorusrhacus longissimus; (F) Paraphysornis brasiliensis; and (G) Brontornis burmeiteri. A man’s silhouette (1.75 m) is used as scale. (Drawing by Eduardo Brettas.)” From: ‘Living dinosaurs : the evolutionary history of modern birds’ edited by Gareth Dyke and Gary Kaiser.

The first bird (A) is  a living Cariama but the rest are various species of terror birds all of which are extinct.  (B) Mesembriornis milneedwardsi; (C) Psilopterus bachmanni; (D) Andalgalornis steuletti; (E) Phorusrhacus longissimus; (F) Paraphysornis brasiliensis; and (G) Brontornis burmeiteri. A man’s silhouette (1.75 m) is used as scale. (Drawing by Eduardo Brettas.)”
From: ‘Living dinosaurs : the evolutionary history of modern birds’ edited by Gareth Dyke and Gary Kaiser.

In the YEC worldview, the world was destroyed around 4000 to 6000 years ago and then repopulated very quickly by both man and animals. If these terror birds were all over South America and even some parts of North America and present as many species why is there is no evidence that any Native Americans ever encountered these flightless birds as they would have been good eating much as the moa did in New Zealand in the 1400s.  Given that even YECs believe people have been in North and South America for almost 4000 years how could these birds have gotten off the Ark, migrated to South America, evolved into many species, populated the continent and then all gone extinct before man arrived?  Just as we have seen in many other examples, the super-fast evolution that young earth creationists have been advocating doesn’t make sense in light of genetics, written historical records or the fossil record.  The young earth timeline here strains credulity at all levels.

Other posts in this series:

Consider the Ostrich:  Job 39 and God’s Commentary on His Creation – Part I 
Consider the Ostrich Part:  Job 39 and Creation – Part II
Consider the Ostrich: Adapted for the Present World? – Part III
Consider the Moa: Extinct Flightless Birds of New Zealand 

Comments

  1. #6? I’m staying the heck away from #5 and #2.

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  2. Sou Evolucionista, Neodarwinista! O ambiente seleciona as espécies mais aptas em detrimento das menos aptas e fatores como as mutações (gênicas e aberrações) e a própria recombinação gênica (Prófase I – Paquíteno ou Paquinema da Meiose I) são os fatores geradores da viariabilidade sobre a qual atua o processo de seleção sempre que uma população se encontra em isolamento reprodutivo, cujas causas podem ser as mais diversas possíveis!

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    • My Google translator doesn’t seem to be handling the Portuguese all that well but I think I agree. My story about selection is mostly a story about possibly environmental influences on the direction of selection. I don’t think we have a strong enough fossil record of these birds to know if they evolved from smaller flighted birds or if they may have inherited their stature from large ancestors that may never have been good at flight. Lots of unknowns but the diversity of fossils does suggest the birds filled a lot of niches in South America while predatory competition was low.

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  3. I am new here and it’s the first post I read. Why are we (and by we I mean you) talking about creationism?

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    • Not an uncommon question. Check out my “about page” for more but essentially, my target audience are creationists. As a Christian who is not a young earth creationists I have a passion for demonstrating that what we learn from the nature does not fit with a young earth creationist view of the world. I could write a story (and do at times) that just tells the science story but I want my particular target audience to see how the science relates to their views and makes them think about them.

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  4. littlebird says:

    Hi there,
    If you really want to make some kind of creationnist critique, maybe you could ask how these birds would have survived in such a confined place as Noah’s ark without driving to extinction many small mammal and bird species, and maybe even Noah himself. That would hold for virtually all predators…

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Trackbacks

  1. […] came across, “When Flightless Birds Ruled the Land: The “Terror” Birds of the New World” a couple of days ago in my daily reading. I enjoyed it, but then I realized that Thing2 would enjoy […]

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  2. […] the beginning of his article, which you can read HERE, he talks about these birds and their anatomy. However, his article takes a turn when he asks […]

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