Ancient bird twice the size of the moa found in Crimea

A palaeontologist says New Zealanders can still be proud of their moa, even though a bigger bird has been discovered in Europe

A thigh bone of the ancient species has been found on the Crimean peninsula, and the bird is thought to have weighed 450 kilograms - twice the size of the biggest moa that once roamed New Zealand.

Otago University's Nic Rawlence says we may be beaten in size, "but we make up in numbers - we have nine species of moa, ranging in size from turkey-size up to true giants. In this case, I think numbers wins."

It is the first time such a massive bird has been found in the northern hemisphere, challenging Madagascar's extinct elephant birds as the biggest that ever roamed the Earth.

Pachystruthio dmanisensis.
Pachystruthio dmanisensis. Photo credit: Andrey Atuchin/supplied

"This site was discovered when they were putting in a highway fairly recently - it's brand new to science," said Dr Lawrence. "With genetic DNA research, we've completely blown apart what we know of the evolution of ratite."

Ratite are a family flightless birds, including the ostrich and kiwi. Elephant birds' closest living relative today are kiwi, and Dr Rawlence says the giant bird found in Crimea, dubbed Pachystruthio dmanisensis, could be related to the moa. 

One thing they all share in common is that their ancestors could fly, but after dinosaurs were wiped out, no longer had any reason to.

"They were around at the time of the dinosaurs, and when dinosaurs went extinct they all lost flight independently in different areas of the world and killed the job vacancy of 'giant dinosaur'."

Pachystruthio dmanisensis bones.
Pachystruthio dmanisensis bones. Photo credit: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

Despite its size, Pachystruthio dmanisensis was a "good runner, which may be explained by its coexistence with large carnivoran mammals", according to the study, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The fossil paleontologists dug up lived sometime between 1.5 million and 1.8 million years ago, so there's a chance some were still lumbering around the Crimea when Homo erectus showed up in Europe 1.2 million years ago. There's a chance that like the moa, Pachystruthio was hunted to extinction.

"We don't know when it became extinct exactly, but most likely it did not survive later than 1.2m years ago," Nikita Zelenkov of the Russian Academy of Sciences told the Guardian. "They would have been seen by various Homo erectus people."