Sunday, September 6, 2015

Where's the Gargantuavis Love?

The Gargantuavis philoinos type specimen.
What, you were expecting more?
Gargantuavis is an extremely interesting type of theropod dinosaur. The type specimen, pictured above, was found while building a winery in Aude, France, and upon description, immediately took much of the scientific community by surprise. Why? It appears to be the largest known Cretaceous-aged euornithine, a two-meter tall flightless "bird", living in an environment alongside its non-euornithine kin. And yes, it did live alongside non-avian dinosaurs. Nearby units of rock have produced a specimen of the sauropod dinosaur Ampelosaurus atacis, dromaeosaurid teeth, fragmentary ankylosaur bones, and the jumbled remains of Rhabdodon priscus. This was a giant bird living alongside equally giant non-avian members of its larger family.

Now, flightless birds in the Mesozoic isn't anything new. Hesperornithes have been known for ages, Patagopteryx (a close relative of Gargantuavis) seems to be a small flightless bird from Argentina, and if you wanna get technical about it one could argue that pennaraptorans are all technically "flightless birds" in the sense that they're feathered things which we think descended from volant or semi-volant ancestors. Balaur was also shown recently to likely be a type of flightless bird close to the base of the avian family tree, showing that even long-tailed birds had a few enigmatic flightless forms. What makes Gargantuavis so interesting, however, is the fact that it seems to be the earliest occurrence of a typical ratite-like body plan characteristic of many later flightless birds which appeared throughout the Cenozoic and continue up to this day in the form of actual ratites.

How much do we know of Gargantuavis? Just a handful of bones for the most part, but just enough for us to get a general idea of what this animal looked like. What's known of the hip and legs shows us that Gargantuavis suggests that it was an extremely heavily built animal incapable of flight, like ratites of today. Unlike many living ratites which are adapted for speed, Gargantuavis had a very broad pelvic bone, possibly to accommodate a large gut, and the size of the femur suggests it was not a specialized runner. Matthew Martyniuk (2012) suggests that this might mean Gargantuavis was much more moa-like in ecology than ostrich-like, and may mean it was also a giant, robustly-built herbivorous browsing animal. A neck vertebrae described in 2012 which may belong to Gargantuavis suggests that it had a long neck and small head, again, like is typical in the largely herbivorous ratites. There's even a possibility that some eggshells originally classified as sauropod eggs from the region might belong to this gigantic bird.

Dromaius novaehollandiae, a living example of the ever-successful ratite-like body plan common throughout archosaurs.
Presumably, Gargantuavis would've been slightly taller, but much thicker and more robustly built.
An animal like Gargantuavis from a Mesozoic ecosystem brings up a lot of questions on how it co-existed alongside its non-avian kin. Presumably, Gargantuavis filled a niche similar to what ornithomimids did in other Mesozoic ecosystems, perhaps with a slightly heavier reliance on plants. As far as I know ornithomimids have yet to be discovered from the entirety of Europe in the late Cretaceous, so it would make sense that Europe, which was a scattering of large islands at the time, would develop its own independent lineage of ratite-like animals. Gargantuavis lived on a fairly large chunk of late Cretaceous European archipelago, but it's interesting to note that other birds from different islands, like Balaur from Hatzeg, also became flightless. Perhaps a number of independent Mesozoic bird lineages became flightless on each isolated island environment? Would definitely like to see if more huge birds end up coming out of these deposits in the future.

All of this amounts of my final tidbit about this awesome animal, which ties-in a bit with the title... Why is there no good artwork of it? A quick Google Image search of this animal comes up with a whopping two illustrations. Just two. The first result is of Hyrotrioskjan's take, which is pretty great bar the fact it looks like a color-swapped ostrich with visible fingers. The next result is from a blog called Dino Detectives, and is worse, showing a full on naked arm similar to old dromaeosaurid reconstructions. That's all there is for Google's Gargantuavis results, and DeviantArt is barely any better.

Why has such an interesting animal been ignored by paleoartists? Balaur got a slew of paleoartwork done for it during both its first and second description, and Patagopteryx, an animal much smaller, simpler-looking, yet closely related to Gargantuavis, has a slew of artwork for it online. Don't think it has to do with its fragmentary nature either; Googling Amphicoelias or Sauroniops online should explain enough. The only other illustration outside of those that I've ever seen of Gargantuavis is in Martyniuk's 2012 book A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs, in which he presents the best reconstruction I've yet seen of this animal. That leaves a total of three official reconstructions that I know about. (Let me know if you know of any more in the comments below.)

So, what does a dinosaur nerd like myself do when he's desperate to see more illustrations of what has to be one of the most interesting Mesozoic euornithines? Sharpen a pencil, pull out some sketch paper, and start drawing:

A trio of Gargantuavis and a juvenile Ampelosaurus wander through a crowded forest.
I blame my attempt at the complex environment on the Douglas Henderson illustration I've been looking at recently.
Above is a pencil sketch I hope to turn into a proper illustration sometime in the future. I'm far from an experienced artists, but I've recently been taking art classes which has greatly increased my skills. Given that Gargantuavis was a very large, heavily-built, herbivorous bird living in an environment filled with other big dinosaurs, I imagined this species living out its life rather like many species of lowland moa which we know from New Zealand. I imagine that in order to better protect themselves against big theropods, they may have avoided open habitats and preferred to live in denser forests where there are more areas to hide. Their more robust bodies and lack of any obvious cursorial traits might suggest that they were more stand-and-fight animals than skittish ones; and anyone who knows anything about ratities knows that these living giant birds can give quite devastating kicks and bites when provoked. Gargantuavis may have been the same if ever attacked by a dromaeosaur or other small theropod. I also included a young Ampelosaurus in the background, presumably either wandering into the forest from more open areas, or was born there and is currently waiting to reach the right size that it can then join a herd of animals.

And that's it for me. A lot of interesting extinct animals are definitely under-represented in artwork, and I feel it's our responsibility to try to not leave any of these wonderful creatures in the dust. I encourage fellow paleoartists to definitely check out Gargantuavis and other under-represented extinct animals when considering what your next piece will be. These guys deserve love just as more famous dinosaurs. Cheers!


Buffetaut, E. & Le Loeuff, J. (1998). "A new giant ground Bird from the Upper Cretaceous of southern France." Journal of the Geological Society, 155: 1-4.

Martyniuk, M. P. (2012). A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs. Vernon, N.J: Pan Aves.

Weishampel, D.B.; Dodson, P. & Osmolska, H. (2004). The Dinosauria (2nd Edition). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 259–322, 588–593.


  1. Replies
    1. I was just referring to attempts at portraying this animal in a realistic sense. Your take is still very good. :)

  2. Oooh... have another top list task. Thanks!