The last terror birds

Skeleton of the terror bird Titanis walleri at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

In 1887, Florentino Ameghino, the “father of Argentinian Palaeontology”, described a large, toothless jaw from the Miocene of the Province of Santa Cruz, naming it Phorusrhacos longissimus and assigning it to a new family of edentulous mammal. He used this finding as a critical evidence for his contention that modern mammalian lineages originated in Argentina and later spread across the globe. Four years later, Moreno and Mercerat recognized for the first time that the mandible described by Ameghino was really that of a bird.

The Phorusrhacidae, the so-called “terror birds”, were a group of medium-to large sized extinct ground-dwelling birds, which lived during the Cenozoic, and became the dominant carnivores of South America while it was an isolated continent. They are characterized by their elongated hindlimbs, narrow pelvis, reduced forelimbs, and their huge skull with their tall, long, narrow, and hollow beaks ended in a hook. Kelenken guillermoi, is the largest known phorusrhacid and lived in the Miocene of Argentina. The skull reaches a length of 71.6 cm and the whole animal would reach 3 m high. Kelenken is also represented by a tarsometatarsus and a broken phalanx and proceeds from the locality of Comallo (Río Negro Province, Argentina). Titanis walleri, lived during the Pliocene and Pleistocene of North America. It was 2.5 metres tall and weighed approximately 150 kilograms. This giant bird is interpreted as an early immigrant during the Great American Interchange.

Proximal portion of the left humerus of Psilopterus sp. Caudal, b ventral, c cranial and d dorsal views (From Jones et. al., 2017)

At the end of the Pliocene, Phorusrhacids decline in diversity. Two new specimens support the hypothesis that the latest geologic occurrence of the Phorusrhacidae comes from late Pleistocene sediments of Uruguay. The remains comprise the distal portion of right tarsometatarsus and a left humerus; the latter is assigned to the genus Psilopterus. The first material (MPAB-520) comes from Soriano, Uruguay, and the sediments belong to the Dolores Formation (Lujanian Stage-Age, late Pleistocene/early Holocene). The following features identify the specimen as a phorusrhacid bird. (1) a large and distally expanded trochlea metatarsi III; (2) a very narrow trochlea metatarsi II with the articular surface transversally convex and without any longitudinal sulcus (in dorsal and distal views); (3) in dorsal view the trochlea metatarsi II is almost parallel and much shorter than the middle trochlea, and forming a narrow notch between trochleae II and III. The second material consists of a left humerus without distal epiphysis belonged to Museo Paleontológico Alejandro Berro (MPAB-2024).

There are two explanatory hypotheses proposed for the decline of the terror birds: environmental reasons or direct competition (at least for the larger specimens) with placental carnivore’s immigrants to South America after the setting of the Panamanian bridge. 



Jones, W., Rinderknecht, A., Alvarenga, H. et al. PalZ (2017), The last terror birds (Aves, Phorusrhacidae): new evidence from the late Pleistocene of Uruguay,

ALVARENGA, Herculano M.F.  and  HOFLING, Elizabeth. Systematic revision of the Phorusrhacidae (Aves: Ralliformes). Pap. Avulsos Zool. (São Paulo) [online]. 2003, vol.43, n.4 [cited  2015-03-24], pp. 55-91 .