Fifty million years ago, when Europe and North America were covered with lush tropical forests, a giant flightless bird prowled through the undergrowth. Gastornis was taller than a man and had a head as large as a horse’s. Its beak was gigantic and its bite immensely powerful—but whether it used it to tear flesh, crack bones, or merely munch on leaves remains an unsolved mystery.
Footprint on sandstone
■ When: 55–45 million years ago (Paleogene)
■ Fossil location: Europe and N. America
■ Habitat: Tropical and subtropical forests
■ Length: Over 6.1/2 ft (2 m)
■ Diet: Unknown
Discovered in France in 1855, Gastornis was named after Gaston Plante, the scientist who found it. A similar bird called Diatryma was later found in North America and is now thought to be the same creature.
Gastornis had large, powerful legs but didn’t have the athletic build of a fast runner. Perhaps it was an ambush hunter, hiding in dense forest and waiting for small animals to wander close, before stamping them to death with its giant feet or snatching them in its beak. Some experts think it was a plant-eater and used its beak to crush tough leaves. Others think it was a scavenger that fed on corpses.
Gastornis’s huge beak had a slightly hooked tip, like that of a bird of prey. According to some scientists, its bite was strong enough to crack open coconuts and bones. Males and females had similar beaks, so the large size probably didn’t evolve for attraction.
For more than 100 years, scientists thought Diatryma from America and Gastornis from Europe were totally different. But then someone realized that the Gastornis fossils had been put together incorrectly and they were actually the same bird. Now both are known as Gastornis, the older name.