Compared to some of the other prehistoric animals which we talk about on Light Future Art, Phorusrhacos lived fairly recently. Inhabiting Argentina 20 million to 13 million years ago, this bird was large and flightless and was probably one of the most fearsome land predators in its region at the time. Standing nearly 10 feet high, Phorusrhacos could have weighed up to 300 pounds. The had short, stubby wings and long legs which were extremely powerful and capable of running quickly over long distances, not unlike modern day ostriches. The beak of this prehistoric bird was hooked sharply, similar to the beaks of modern birds of prey like hawks and eagles, leading scientists to believe that they were carnivores. Their feet had three toes which ended in sharp claws. There are two possible hunting and attacking methods which this prehistoric bird could have used. First, they could have used their sharp beak and claws to slash, like many predatory mammals do. Secondly, however, they might have used their sharp beak to hold on to their prey tightly while hitting them against the ground. Either way, they sure were deadly and you probably wouldn’t have liked to meet one.
This bird most likely kept to woodlands and scrub brush. The prey that they hunted was probably small mammals who lived in the forest. Like tigers and many other big cats, it is hypothesized that Phorusrhacos could have stayed in the trees waiting for their prey to wander closer and then put on a sudden burst of speed to catch them.
When Phorusrhacos was first discovered, it was first believed to be a new species of mammal. The first fossil remains to be found was a mostly preserved mandible (jawbone), in Argentina in 1887. It was Florentino Ameghino who made the first discovery and gave this species its name. Because at first the only fossil on record was a jawbone, this species full scientific name Phorusrhacos longissimus is describing only this bone. The mandible had a slightly wrinkled texture, so “rhakos”, a Greek word meaning “wrinkled” was used. The jawbone was also long, and that’s exactly what “longissimus” means. While it was Ameghino who said that his discovery was a mammal, it was also Ameghino who re-identified Phorusrhacos as a bird.
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