Aug. 29, 2013 — It's a fiercely debated question amongst palaeontologists: was the giant 'terror bird', which lived in Europe between 55 to 40 million years ago, really a terrifying predator or just a gentle herbivore?
New research presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Florence today (Thursday 29th August) may finally provide an answer. A team of German researchers has studied fossilised remains of terror birds from a former open-cast brown coal mine in the Geiseltal (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany) and their findings indicate the creature was most likely not a meat eater.
The terror bird -- also known asGastornis -- was a flightless bird up to two metres in height with an enormous, ferocious beak. Based upon its size and ominous appearance, scientists have long assumed that it was a ruthless carnivore.
"The terror bird was thought to have used its huge beak to grab and break the neck of its prey, which is supported by biomechanical modelling of its bite force," says Dr Thomas Tütken, from the University of Bonn. "It lived after the dinosaurs became extinct and at a time when mammals were at an early stage of evolution and relatively small; thus, the terror bird was though to have been a top predator at that time on land."
Recent research has cast some doubt on its diet, however. Palaeontologists in the United States found footprints believed to belong to the American cousin of Gastornis, and these do not show the imprints of sharp claws, used to grapple prey, that might be expected of a raptor. Also, the bird's sheer size and inability to move fast has made some believe it couldn't have predated on early mammals -- though others claim it might have ambushed them. But, without conclusive findings either way, the dietary inclinations of Gastornis remain a mystery.