Wildlife TV

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A Giant in the Sky: The Largest Bird to Ever Fly

In 1983, in South Carolina, U.S.A., work was under way to expand Charleston International Airport by adding a new terminal. In order for construction to go ahead, a large earth moving operation was required, but upon digging into the rock, a wealth of ancient fossils were discovered. Albert Sanders was curator at the Charleston Museum at the time and led the excavation at the dig site in order to collect and study the prehistoric remains.

25-28 million years ago the world was a different place; the Earth was much warmer and there was less ice at the poles meaning that sea levels were significantly higher. The area where Charleston airport is now situated was once underwater, and the rock that was dug into for the excavation was once the seabed. The fossilised seabed held many interesting remains, including whales and fish, but one volunteer at the site, James Malcom, discovered something that stood out; some assorted bones, including a skull, of what appeared to be a large bird. Sanders, the dig leader, was a whale expert, not a bird expert, so the remains were archived in a drawer at the museum to be analysed later.

Decades later and the airport is busy and thriving, but the prehistoric bird bones lay untouched in a museum archive, that is until Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greewich, Connecticut, was invited to analyse the finds. Ksepka is a palaeontologist and expert in ancient bird remains who ended up discovering something rather interesting.

Ksepka used computer simulations to try to piece together the size and shape of the bird and try to model its flight patterns. The bird was always known to be a member of the pelagornithid family (a group of huge sea birds that are characterised by the presence of tooth-like spikes in their beaks) but it was soon realised that this individual was a whole new species and not only was this a new species but it seemed to be the largest bird that ever took to the skies!

Artist's depiction of Pelagornis sandersi in flight

An artist’s depiction of Pelagornis sandersi in flight over an ancient ocean. By Liz Bradford.

The bird was named Pelagornis sandersi (named after Sanders, the original excavator); it was a huge animal, boasting a wingspan of up to 7m and it perhaps could have been wider when flight feathers are factored in. Like other birds in the pelagornithid family, it lived most of its time out at sea, catching soft-fleshed marine creatures like fish and invertebrates; we know this because of its ‘teeth’ which are unusual as far as bird beaks are concerned. It had short, stumpy legs meaning that it was awkward on land, but more streamlined when in flight. Ksepka’s computer modelling demonstrated that sandersi’s size and shape made it an extremely effective glider that would have required very few wing beats in order to travel huge distances, instead, it soared through the air riding air currents and thermal up-draughts. Sandersi was also an extremely light bird, given it’s size; based on its bone density, it’s calculated that an individual might have only weighed between 20kg to 40kg (compare that to a modern-day ostrich (Struthio camelus) which weighs in at 100kg), this would have assisted in keeping it aloft.

The largest bird capable of flight that currently exists is the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) which boasts a measly wingspan of 3.5m. Although sandersi and the albatross are very different birds in many ways, they share many similarities, most notably their lifestyle; spending almost their entire lives out at sea, soaring above the waves, swooping down to catch fish and other prey and rarely coming to land, except for mating and replacing flight feathers. The albatross is also notable for its struggle to get airborne, a struggle shared by its ancient cousin. Sandersi was so perfectly adapted to its aerial lifestyle that it would have been positively useless on the ground, struggling to move around and protect itself and struggling to take off again. It’s quite possible that sandersi would have been completely incapable of taking flight unless it ran downhill into a good wind, or even leapt from a cliff in favourable conditions.

A Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans)

The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) is the largest flying bird currently in existence, but larger birds existed in the past. Photo Credits.

Sandersi was the largest bird to ever fly, but other types of animal have also taken to the sky in the past. Bats and insects still live around us, but between 228-66 million years ago, there lived a group of animals called pterosaurs; large flying reptiles that soared in the skies over the dinosaur world. One of these animals, named Quetzalcoatlus, was the largest flying animal to ever live with a mighty wingspan of 15m and when it landed, it stood as tall as a giraffe! Pterosaurs ruled the skies for a very long time before birds evolved and eventually dethroned them, and it was a very long time still before sandersi arrived to take the title of largest flying bird.

Artist's depiction of Quetzalcoatlus

Quetzalcoatlus was a gigantic flying reptile that holds the record as the largest animal to ever take flight. Photo Credits.

Before the discovery of sandersi, the record holder was Argentavis magnificens (another seabird which lived around 6 million years ago, much later) but Ksepka reckons that there may be other specimens out there that will break the record. He believes that it’s possible that we may find birds with 10m wingspans, but any more than that is quite unlikely due the physics involved in flight.

Life on Earth has had 3.5 billion years to experiment with many different forms. The animal kingdom is richly varied and full of remarkable and fascinating creatures but some of the most amazing are no longer with us. Over 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, among them are astonishing animals that are almost unimaginable. Who knows what wonderful and bizarre creatures are still waiting to be discovered deep in the ground!

Much love,

     -Nick

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On Drug Lords and Hippos

We are all familiar with one of Africa’s most iconic animals; the noble hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). The hippopotamus (or hippo) is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that lives in the waterways of sub-Saharan Africa, however, for the last couple of decades, these animals have embarked on a peculiar experiment and have begun to colonise some of the lakes and rivers of Colombia in South America.

A black and white portrait of Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who used his extraordinary wealth to build his own private zoo.

This bizarre story starts with the exploits of one man in the 1980s: Pablo Escobar was a notorious Colombian drug lord who trafficked cocaine and built a crime empire that earned him the title of world’s wealthiest criminal. In the 1980s, Escobar’s cartel controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine industry and he managed to acquire US$30 billion in the process. So where does a billionaire drug lord make his home? Well, in a sprawling, luxurious, palatial estate of course: Escobar built for himself the sprawling Hacienda Nápoles; a 20km2 ranch containing everything from a private airport, to a bullring, to a dinosaur themed playground, but the most important part (for this story) is the zoo. The Hacienda Nápoles zoo contained a huge variety of exotic creatures, smuggled into Colombia from all over the world, many from Africa, including a small herd of 4 hippos.

So what happens next? Well, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed in a gun battle with Colombian police leaving the future of his ill-gained property uncertain. The next battle was a legal one, over who was responsible for the sprawling ranch in Antioquia (a region of rural Colombia); Escobar’s family fought with the government for many years over custody, but in the meantime, the hacienda was neglected and fell into disrepair. Thankfully, most of the resident animals of Escobar’s zoo were relocated to zoos in and out of Colombia where they could be cared for properly, but the hippos were left behind (no-one is particularly eager to take on a group of 2 tonne adult hippos). The hippo habitat at the hacienda is, thankfully, quite suited to the animals and they were happy to reside there while the rest of the zoo was slowly reclaimed by the forest.

The story gets interesting again a whole 14 years later in 2007 when local farmers and fishermen in the region began contacting the government’s environmental department reporting encounters with strange animals in Antioquia’s rivers and lakes. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, these strange animals were Escobar’s hippos. It turns out that the hippo’s lake at Hacienda Nápoles was only separated from the waters beyond by a flimsy fence that was no match for a hefty hippo and adventurous individuals had pushed past the fence and explored the lush waterways beyond, in particular the Río Magdalena (Magdalena river).

Hippos

The hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) is native to sub-Saharan Africa, but has been introduced to South America.
Photo Credits.

Colombia turned out to be an ideal place for displaced hippos to prosper, especially the Antioquia region where a tropical climate keeps things warm and wet, and the Magdalena river system provides an ideal habitat due to its shallow and slow moving waters. Most of the regions in Africa from where hippos originate are annually subjected to extended dry periods where hippopotamus populations are forced to battle for survival until the rains return and the rivers swell once more; this is not the case in their new South American home and the Colombian hippos are free to frolic all year round. And ‘frolic‘ they did; Escobar originally smuggled 4 hippos into his zoo (3 females and 1 male) and in new ideal conditions, without adequate management, that population exploded and now there are estimated to be as many as 60 individuals in the area! The original male hippo, named El Viejo (The Old Man) produced several sons who would have been driven away from their maternal group when they reached sexual maturity which triggered their exodus from the zoo, out into the wild.

The hippos have expanded their kingdom quite extensively and there have been sightings as far as 250km away from the zoo. Encounters between local people and the animals has been becoming increasingly common; the region is very sparsely populated but those who live there are predominantly farmers and fishermen. The encounters usually take place on or around the water, but sometimes at night, when the animals come onto land to feed (often on farmers’ crops). We know that hippos can be extremely dangerous animals, one of the most dangerous animals on Earth, and certainly the most dangerous mammal, killing thousands of people every year in Africa, however, fortunately there have yet to be any deaths or serious injuries relating to the Colombian hippos, but it is perhaps just a matter of time. As encounters become more and more intimate, the odds of a deadly conflict increase and there are already reports of baby hippos being brought into homes and children swimming in ponds inhabited by the notoriously grumpy creatures.

The Open Mouth of a Hippo

Hippos use their formidable canines to attack rivals and threats. They are the most dangerous mammals on Earth.
Photo Credits.

So what is the future for these alien animals? That is a complicated question that has many answers. The hippos pose a potential safety risk to local people and threaten regional crops and livestock, but there is also an ecological risk; the hippopotamus does not belong in South America and the population is growing wildly out of control. Everyone involved agrees that something needs to be done, but no-one can seem to agree what is the best course of action. The one thing that is certain is that they can’t go back to the wild in Africa due to disease transmission risks, but there are several other proposed ideas:

  • A dedicated wildlife reserve should be created to house all of the animals once they have been rounded up.

  • All of the males should be identified and castrated so that the population will not grow any further, and eventually die off.

  • The animals should be hunted for food for the local people (apparently hippo tastes remarkably like pork).

  • A full scale culling operation should be used.

  • Every hippo should be captured and relocated to zoos.

Unfortunately, Colombia does not have the finance or resources for many of these options, and there are also serious ethical concerns on how to treat the animals.

Pablo Escobar has left a strange and controversial legacy in Colombia; to many he is a violent, drug dealing, criminal gangster who destabilised the region and caused death and corruption, to others he is a ‘Robin Hood’ character who battled a corrupt government and gave generously to poor people, personally funding schools and hospitals. The hippopotamus population he has left behind in his country is as fascinating and controversial as the man himself.

Colombia has the highest number of terrestrial mammal species of any country in the world and now hippos can join the list, at least until someone can figure out what to do with them!

Much love,

-Nick

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