Brontornis burmeisteri was one of the largest flightless birds known to have ever existed, standing around 2.8m tall (9’2″) and estimated to have weighed 400kg (~880lbs).
Known from the early and mid-Miocene of Argentina, between about 17 and 11 million years ago, it’s traditionally considered to be one of the carnivorous terror birds that dominated predatory roles in South American ecosystems during the long Cenozoic isolation of the continent.
But Brontornis might not actually have been a terror bird at all – it may have instead been a giant cousin of ducks and geese.
The known fossil material is fragmentary enough that it’s still hard to tell for certain, but there’s some evidence that links it to the gastornithiformes, a group of huge herbivorous birds related to modern waterfowl.
If it was a gastornithiform, that would mean it represents a previously completely unknown lineage of South American giant flightless galloanserans. And, along with the gastornithids and the mihirungs, it would represent a third time that group of birds convergently evolved this sort of body plan and ecological role on entirely different continents during the Cenozoic.
The islands of Hawaii are part of a larger archipelago formed via hotspot volcanism in the Pacific, and are quite geologically young — the oldest of the main islands was formed just slightly over 5 million years ago, and the youngest less than 0.5 million years ago.
Located almost 3700km (2300 miles) from the nearest continental shore, they’re the most isolated islands on Earth. Their native species are all descended from the rare colonization events that reached such a remote location, either via ocean rafting or island hopping from much older now-submerged islands northwest in the chain.
Like many other Pacific islands no land mammals ever reached Hawaii prior to human arrival, and so it was birds that ended up filling many of the vacant ecological niches.
The dominant herbivores of most the islands were the moa-nalo — no relation to the moa of New Zealand — a group of large flightless birds that resembled giant geese but were actually descended from ducks, with their closest living relative thought to be the modern Pacific black duck. They had reduced wings, chunky legs, and big heavy beaks, some featuring large serrations and others convergently resembling those of giant tortoises.
The Maui Nui large-billed moa-nalo (Thambetochen chauliodous) was one of the biggest species, about 90cm tall (~3′). It originally lived in the highlands of Maui Nui, a large island that formed over 1 million years ago — and when Maui Nui subsided and flooded about 200,000 years ago, it would have then occupied the resulting modern islands of Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and Kahoʻolawe.
Polynesians reached the Hawaiian islands sometime between 300 CE and 1200 CE (the exact dating seems to be controversial). The moa-nalo would have suffered the same fate as many other flightless island birds, lacking any instinctive fear of the new arrivals and falling prey to the invasive pigs, dogs, and rats they brought with them.
While some of the main big herbivores on the Late Miocene Gargano-Scontrone island(s) were the larger species of Hoplitomeryx, they weren’t the only animals filling that ecological niche.
Garganornis was an enormous anatid bird, closely related to modern ducks, geese, and swans. Although only known from fragments of its skeleton it’s estimated to have stood up to 1.5m tall (4′11″), making it the largest known waterfowl to have ever lived.
It probably reached such a size thanks to the lack of large terrestrial predators, and possibly also as protection against the island eagles and owls – literally growing too big for them to be able to eat.
It was flightless, with small wings, and had reduced webbing between its toes, suggesting it spent most of its time walking around on land. It also had bony knobs on its wrists that would have been used to give some extra force to wing-slaps when fighting with each other over territory or mates.
The turtle-jawed moa-nalo (Chelychelynechen quassus) was a large flightless goose-like duck from the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. About 90cm tall (3′) and weighing around 7kg (15lbs), these birds and their relatives were descended from dabbling ducks and existed on most of the larger Hawaiian islands for the last 3 million years or so – before going extinct around 1000 years ago following the arrival of Polynesian settlers.
Chelychelynechen had an unusually-shaped bill, tall and broad with vertically-oriented nostrils, convergently similar to the beak of a turtle. It would have occupied the same sort of ecological niche as giant tortoises on other islands, filling the role of large herbivore in the absence of mammals.