The Charleston International crew thought they were just building a bigger airport. The archaeology crew thought they might be digging up a whale. The biggest bird ever to fly hung for years from the ceiling in the Charleston Museum - without even a name.
But when curators recently pulled open the fossil drawer for paleontologist Daniel Ksepka, he was stunned. He laid his arm down by a piece of the wing bone and it was longer than his entire arm. The wings of this giant, in fact, were 21-feet-long - longer than a giraffe is tall.
"This," Ksepka told the curators, "is a big boy."
Ksepka, of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., identified Pelagornis sandersi in a paper this month - creating a stir in international media as impressive as a flap of those wings. The fossil was found in 1983 during excavation work at the airport in North Charleston.
Before Ksepka's work, a cast of the 25-million-or-so year old fossil hung from the ceiling had been labeled as a false-toothed giant but not as a specific bird because nobody knew whether it was: The airport discovery was the first fossil ever found of the bird and still the only one known to exist.
The fossil was so unexpected, it was thought to be impossible and the conventional hypothesis was that a bird with that big of a wing span wouldn't be able to flap its wings.
"It raises the threshold for the size of flight," Ksepka said. "It's a really good example of how fossils can tell us something new."
The giant flew at a time when the ocean surf broke in what today is Summerville or farther inland. The bird had a long, slender beak studded with sharp bone projections that served as teeth, giving it its general name.
In other words, it could pick up one big fish.
"I wouldn't want it coming after me," said Kendra Whitney, of Columbia, after gaping up at the cast.
Luckily enough for the museum, the widely reported identification comes just as its staff begins reworking its exhibits to focus primarily on a natural history collection of more than 200,000 specimens, such as 12 species of ancient whale that have not been identified yet - and most are Lowcountry discoveries. Staff will relocate the "fluids" specimens, stuff in preservation fluids in jars, to a more suitable museum in North Carolina, to accommodate the change.
The big bird gives the planned new exhibit gallery a go-to-see-it centerpiece for a collection that will take visitors down the passage of time on the Lowcountry coast. The museum hopes to open the exhibit in 2017. Staff also will work to bring in more researchers, to identify other species hopefully as significant as the bird.
"There's a lifetime worth of unidentified specimens in the collection. I think some more cool stories will come out over the years," Ksepka said.
The exhibit's focus could also open up the museum to more Lowcountry discoveries.
"Any time there's new construction, any time there's major rainfall, you're going to open up fossils you didn't know existed," said Matt Gibson, natural history curator.
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