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. Such is the case of the so-called “terror birds” of South America. The terror birds are a group of birds known only from fossils. These fossils have been classified in 14 genera and 18 described species in a single family, the Phorusrhacidae.
All terror bird fossils are found in the upper portion of the geological column spanning the layers that conventional geologists date from 62 to just 2 million years ago. There is no evidence that a terror bird ever met a dinosaur since all dinosaur fossils are found in sedimentary rocks below those which contain terror birds. Likewise there is not evidence that terror birds ever had any encounters with man.
All terror birds were flightless with over-sized beaks. Several species were so large that they represent the largest birds to have ever been discovered. The terror birds had wings, but they were very small in relationship to the body, just as the T. rex had small arms relative to its body. You can think of them as really scary-looking ostriches.
Many species of terror birds would have towered over the tallest man and it appears that they were either scavengers or actively caught mammals, possibly the size of goats and sheep, reptiles and other birds for food. When these birds lived in South America, there just a few other predators such as the strange carnivorous metatherian mammals called the Sparassodonta, which are also all extinct. Whether the terror birds were active predators or not is not well established but they must have been an imposing presence in South America.
Terror bird fossils are found throughout South America, but remains of one species has been found in North America. This single large (4 to 6-foot tall) species was found in Florida. It is very difficult to imagine what it would have been like to observe groups of 6-foot birds roaming the scrub plains of Florida hunting animals. Although it would have been awesome to see one of these from afar, encountering a bird more than 6-feet tall with a head the size of horse would have been scary. One can’t help but notice from the skeletons that these birds are quite reminiscent of several lineages of theropod dinosaurs including Tyrannosaurus rex.
Where do these birds fit in the creationist timeline?
These must have been very distinct birds. If they were living on Earth only a few thousand years ago–a necessity in the young-earth chronology–one would expect to have eyewitness reports. We have already seen how the author of Job references the ostrich and other contemporary animals. Had terror birds been known in that part of the world, one would imagine that God would have used them as an example to Job of his creation. But alas, the only evidence we have of their existence is found in fossil bones. And with no evidence of their fossils existing alongside hominid fossils, the terror birds seem to belong to a world from long before man walked the earth.
Young-earth creationists believe that representatives of each bird “kind”–roughly equivalent to the taxonomic grouping of family–were preserved on Noah’s ark and then entered, from the Ark’s resting place in the Middle East, a world devoid of living land animals less than 4500 years ago.
The Ark Encounter themed attraction in Kentucky, operated by the young-earth apologetic ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) lists all of the supposed “kinds” of animals that they believe Noah took with him on the ark. That list includes terror birds, but condenses all species of them into one “kind” of now-extinct bird. AiG lists the family Phorusrhacidae as being on the ark, indicating they believe that there was just one pair of terror bird representatives on the Ark.
Just like the ostriches, penguins and rheas—but, notably, not the flightless great auks!—the terror birds survived the global flood and were then released from Noah’s Ark in the Middle East. Young-earth creationists are now left with a great mystery! How did a pair of flightless terror birds travel all the way to South America, leaving no evidence of their existence in the Old World, evolve into a dozen distinct species, all of which went extinct and yet are well-represented in the fossil record, and do all of this, before man arrived, just a few hundred years after departing Noah’s ark? If multiple species of terror birds were distributed over South America and even parts of North America, why is there is no evidence that any Native American ever encountered these flightless birds? They should have made for some good eating, much as the moa did in New Zealand in the 1400s.
As we have documented in many other examples, the super-fast evolution that young-earth creationists advocate doesn’t make sense in light of genetics, geographical distribution, written historical record or the fossil record. The young-earth timeline strains credulity in every way.
Having read a draft of this article a friend summarized it this way:
“AiG would have us believe that that the laws of physics and genetics were radically altered due to the fall of man and the great flood. But what of every other scientific discipline? According to the young-earth timeline and teaching, these terror birds, in only a couple hundred years, migrated to another continent while leaving no evidence of their existence elsewhere, evolved into at least 18 different species found on two continents, and went extinct without any evidence of ever interacting with human beings. Surely such improbable events would be supported by some evidence! But, no. This wildly unlikely story is merely a product of necessity, forced like a square peg into a round hole. The young-earth insistence upon a literal seven-day creation and a six to ten-thousand year old universe leaves no alternative than to compress events like these and to manufacture “explanations” that, rather than matching hand in glove with the evidence, instead perfectly match their own theology and ignore the evidence altogether.”
Other posts in this series:
Consider the Ostrich: Job 39 and God’s Commentary on His Creation
Consider the Ostrich: Comparing Theistic Models of Biological Origins
The Prelapsarian Ostrich: Paradise Lost of a Portrait of a Good Creation?
Consider the Ostrich: Literal-Day Creationists Unsure about the Ostrich’s Created Condition
This article is an updated version of one first published in March 2013.
Editing graciously provided by MC.