The Terror Bird, scientific name phorusrhacid, was an apex predator in South America following the extinction of the dinosaurs.
There were at least 18 species of this very large flightless bird. They ranged in size from just under a metre to three metres in height. They had long legs and powerful beaks, perfect for chasing down prey and crunching bone.
The largest bird skull ever found
In 1999 an enormous near complete Terror Bird skull was found in the northwestern part of Río negro province of Argentina. It dated from the Middle Miocene and at 71.6 cm in length was the largest phorusrhacid skull ever found.
The skull belonged to a new species of Terror Bird, called Kelenken guillermo.
Distribution of the Terror Birds
Although Terror Birds were mostly a South American creature, bones have been found on other continents.
In 1961 and 1962 fossils of a phorusrhacid dubbed Titanis walleri were discovered in the Santa Fe river in north-central Florida. Further searching in Florida found more fossils in the same river and also in a sinkhole and a canal. Another specimen was dug up in Texas in 1995.
Titanis walleri is the only known North American phorusrhacid. It was 1.5 metres tall.
For photographs and further information on the North American Terror Bird, visit the Florida Museum’s dedicated webpage.
Terror Birds in Europe
It used to be thought that Terror Birds never lived in Europe. In 2013 scientists published a journal article reassessing fossils found in France and Switzerland. They concluded that the bones belonged to a species of phorusrhacid that lived in Europe during the Eocene.
The article’s authors suggested that the discovery, together with Terror Bird fossils found in Africa, could mean that phorusrhacids came from Africa, briefly lived in Europe and then went on to flourish in South America. Or that, the birds originated in South America before crossing the South Atlantic to Africa and then entering Europe.
The authors point out that a flightless bird crossing the South Atlantic is not as unlikely as it sounds. They say:
“In the early Tertiary, the South Atlantic was significantly narrower than it is today and large islands subsisted along the now-submerged Walvis Ridge and Rio Grande Rise until the Eocene . They provided possible ‘stepping stones’ for island-hopping dispersal.”
The article is freely available to read online. Click on the link to read “Terror Birds” (Phorusrhacidae) from the Eocene of Europe Imply Trans-Tethys Dispersal.
Terror Birds on television
In 2011 confused time travelling phorusrhacids featured in series 4 of the British ITV series Primeval. Here they are chasing Danny Quinn.