When Gastornis roamed around the Arctic 53 million years ago, looking for some fruits and leaves to eat, the environment was much different from what it is today.
Gastornis, a large flightless bird, didn’t walk on snow or ice; temperatures never reached the frigid lows they do in the Arctic today. The bird’s neighborhood was more like the cypress swamps seen today in the southern U.S., and they like to hang out with turtles, alligators, primates, tapirs, and even animals who looked like modern-day hippos and rhinos.
Of course, since the island of Ellesmere was still above the Arctic Circle back then. “The lights still went out there for several months of the year, just as they do today,” geologist Jaelyn Eberle told United Press International.
Scientists unearthed a toe bone of the Gastornis in the 1970s, when the island was first mined for fossils. Though a frozen wasteland in northern Canada and a close neighbor of frigid Greenland, it’s rich with fossils from this warmer past. Researchers have discovered evidence of those crocodiles and primates, The Christian Science Monitor added.
The toe bone has just recently been examined and described by paleontologists, some 40 years after it was found. And though they only have this one little piece of the creature to go on, they’re confident it belongs to the Gastornis.
This ancient bird also lived 2,500 miles south of the Arctic site in Wyoming. A Gastornis skeleton was discovered there. Among its bones is one from the toe — and it’s a perfect match to the one in Ellesmere, serving as proof that it lived in northern latitudes.
“I couldn’t tell the Wyoming specimens from the Ellesmere specimen, even though it was found roughly (2,500 miles) to the north,” said Professor Thomas Stidham.
According to a press release about the discovery, the bird also lived in Europe and Asia.
Gastornis have been described as having the physique of a football player. The bird measures at 6-feet-tall, weighing several hundred pounds with a head the size of a horse. If the creature was a meat-eater, it would’ve been a very intimidating sight indeed, but the giant was a gentle one.
Scientists used to think that Gastornis were carnivores, but upon closer inspection, they believe their was vegan, subsisting almost entirely on fruits and leaves.
Along with the discovery of Gastornis, scientists also found another ancient bird, this one a little less imposing and perhaps not a permanent resident of the balmy swamps above the Arctic circle.
All that is left of a Presbyronis on this island is an upper wing bone. It has told paleontologists that the bird was smaller than his football player-like friend, and looked more like a goose or duck, but with the long and shapely legs of a flamingo.
This smaller bird had one thing on its huge counterpart — it could fly. And that’s why researchers don’t know whether the animal spent the entire year on the island, or migrated to the area.
“Given the fossils we have, both hypotheses are possible,” Stidham said. “There are some sea ducks today that spend the winter in the cold, freezing Arctic, and we see many more species of waterfowl that are only in the Arctic during the relatively warmer spring and summer months.”
A Presbyornis was also found in Wyoming, and matched a specimen found there.
The massive change in this part of the world, from a balmy swamp teeming with primates and hippos and crocodiles, to a barren and frozen wasteland, is of interest to scientists today as they attempt to understand and predict how climate change will affect the planet. The evidence found on Ellesmere could be helpful in forecasting the fate of the world’s coldest reaches.
“I’m not suggesting there will be a return of alligators and giant tortoises to Ellesmere Island any time soon,” said Eberle. “But what we know about past warm intervals in the Arctic can give us a much better idea about what to expect in terms of changing plant and animal populations there in the future.”
[Photo By Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock]