Central Coast Critters: Osteodontornis

Hey there everypeoples!

I had originally reserved this post for a very special gal, but given the recent buzz about the new species of Pelagornis I thought I’d give the slot to one of the more bizarre denizens of the Central Coast.

A long time in a quarry outside Santa Maria, workers found the skeleton of a strange creature. It looked like a bird, but was far bigger than any bird that plies the coast today. That and it looked like this thing had teeth! So the specimen was taken to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History where it can still be seen today. The creature was identified as a new type of sea bird by then curator of Anthropology Phil Orr (he also dabbled in paleontology). It was thus named Osteodontorniss orri, the giant “bone-toothed bird”.

Part (original fossil) of Osteondornis orri at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Counterpart (mirrior imprint of fossil) of Osteodonornis

This bird had a wingspan of 14 feet and would have stood over 3 feet tall. Given the size and shape of the wings, it is likely that Osteodontornis flew like a modern albatross, using long slender wings to soar over long distances in search of food. But being a bird it would still need to come to shore to roost and breed.  Osteodontornis would have picked off fish and squid that strayed too close to the surface. And that’s where the bird’s namesake comes in. The bird’s name derives from several tooth-like structures in the beak that would have proved very useful for snagging slippery prey. But these structures were actually bony extensions of the jawbone rather than true teeth. Nonetheless it probably made it look like dinosaurs had come back to life!

Osteodontornis may have been found here first but he has been found further afield. The bird appears to have occupied both sides of the North Pacific. Many fragmentary specimens have been found at Sharktooth Hill in Kern County. A couple fossils have been found across the ocean in Japan. Also an obscure bone was found on Vancouver Island. It is an abraded part of the tarsometatarsus found in what is thought to be the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. This would make it much older that Osteodontornis (indeed the bone has been given its own genus: Cyphornis). Many think the rocks in which the bone was found may actually be early Miocene in age, which would mean this could be an early species of Osteodontornis. But other pseudotooth bird bones from Oregon that date from the Eocene-Oligocene boundary are thought to possibly be from the same animal. This is possible, if the rocks in Vancouver are in fact that old. But being bird bones, they are hollow, thin walled, and very fragile. The few bits that do survive don’t offer much information on who is who.

Osteodontornis jaw fragments from Sharktooth Hill, Kern County

And this fragmentary nature makes it difficult to discern which bird group Osteodontornis and his kin are related to. While we are able to group pseudotooth birds together (Pelagornithidae), their broader relationships are harder to be certain of. At first they were grouped with the Pelecaniformes, which includes pelicans and gannets. But a later study found that they may be more closely related to waterfowl. The pseudotooth birds’ relationships to other birds may be difficult to ascertain since we have trouble just trying to figure out how many species and genera of pseudotooth birds there actually is. As noted above, their fossils are rarely preserved beyond partial bones.

All that aside Osteodontornis is the biggest seabird ever to call the Central Coast its home. It must have been even more spectacular in flight than the pelicans I see at the beach. While you can get up close and personal with the original specimen, the closest people can get to seeing the splendor of this great bird is a life size cutout above the skeleton. I had once suggested to the Santa Barbara Museum that when the day comes to renovate their paleontology hall (and trust me, it really needs it), they should try to recapture this ancient bird’s glory. I suggested having a reconstructed skeleton (or better yet a fleshed out model) perched on a rocky outcrop with its wings outspread is if it’s preparing for takeoff. The original specimen would be mounted inside the wall of the outcrop. Whether this will be or not is uncertain. The museum turns 100 in 2016 and has accordingly plotted out a master plan to revive the museum for its centennial. I hope my suggestions to the museum at least inspire ideas about what to do. And frankly, if they only listen to one of them, I hope it is my idea for Osteodontornis. He’s been at that museum for a long time. It is only fitting that he gets a grand re-envisioning.

Osteodontornis soaring over the shores of Miocene California (crappy image due to it being scanned in from an archaic 1960's field guide)

Till next time!

Addendum: The Coastal Paleontologist informs me that recent study has shown that there is insufficient evidence for differentiating between pelfronids. As such, Osteodontornis orri is now Pleagornis orri.

7 thoughts on “Central Coast Critters: Osteodontornis

  1. I remember when you took me to see this speciman at the Santa Barbra Museum! Glad you could tell us more about it. Even though I already knew majority of this from your personal tour of the museum!

  2. Very nice!

    I wouldn’t be surprised if larger pseudodontorns eventually show up in the early-middle Miocene units in California, that are even bigger than 14 feet. There awesome real monsters at that time (based on fragments), and they were probably ranging more or less globally.

    • Well pseudotooth birds have a wide distribution around the globe (England and Morroco to name a couple of places they have been found in) and the largest are only overshadowed by Argentavis. And you never know. There may very well have been a bigger bird here and we just haven’t found him yet.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Doug! It’s always nice to see some new images and commentary dedicated to this most engaging group of birds! If I ever manage to visit California, I’ll most assuredly drop into this museum!

  4. Hey Folks,

    A paper came out in JVP last month about a new skeleton of a pelagornithid from the late Miocene of Chile named “Pelagornis chilensis”. In the paper they debunk Argentavis as the largest flying bird; it was in fact Pelagornis, and the wing of Argentavis isn’t known by much more than the humerus and a few other scraps. P. chilensis is now the largest, with a wingspan of ~20 feet (with feathers).

    One implication of the study is that they lumped all Neogene pelagornithids into Pelagornis, because at this point there is insufficient evidence to separate them into different genera – so Osteodontornis is no more, and it is now classified as Pelagornis orri.

    Second, there is another pelagornithid from California that is MUCH larger (albeit nowhere near as complete) than Pelagornis orri. But that’s all I’ll say for now. Let’s just say that a writeup is in the works, and hopefully it will be submitted for review in the next week or so!

    • I plead ignorance since i can never get access to the information other bloggers seem to. All i can find are disparate papers during random google searches.

      So sea birds again claim the title of bigest flying birds. I dunno. I’d say Argentavis is down but not out.

  5. Hey Doug,

    the paper only came out about a week before you did this post – here’s the citation:

    Mayr, G., and D. Rubilar-Rogers. 2010. Osteology of a new giant bony-toothed bird from the Miocene of Chile, with a revision of the taxonomy of Neogene Pelagornithidae. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30:1313–1330.

    Anyway, the synonymization of Osteodontornis into Pelagornis is hidden in the discussion, so even if you had only glossed over the paper upon its release, its still possible to miss that part.

    Re: Argentavis – Mayr and Rubilar Rogers discuss wingspan estimates for these airborne titans, and its obvious from their discussion that winspan estimates you find on the intertubes for Argentavis having a 26′ wingspan are exaggerated, possibly by an extra 10 feet. Argentavis has a 57 cm long humerus, and the preserved portion of Pelagornis orri’s humerus is just as long (and only 75% complete at that) while that of P. chilensis is 80 cm long.

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