Question – What is a “Terror Bird”?

Featured in films such as 10,000 BC and the original King Kong film released in 1933 as well as in television documentaries such as “Walking with Beasts” and science fiction programmes such as “Primeval” – the “Terror Birds” as they are known are certainly in the public’s conscience.

However, who or what exactly is a “Terror Bird”?  We do get asked this question quite a lot, usually by boys aged between six and eight years of age.

The term “Terror Bird” was first used to describe the fossils of a large, carnivorous, flightless bird, fossilised remains of which had been discovered in South America.  This particular genus was named Phorusrhacos and a number of species have now been ascribed.  These birds were apex predators competing alongside placental mammals in South America for millions of years, although Phorusrhacids had once roamed widely with the oldest fossils dating from Europe.  Although the term “Terror Bird” was first used to describe a South American genus, this phrase is now used to describe most of the large, flightless carnivorous birds of the Cenozoic.  They were certainly terrifying with some specimens standing over 3 metres tall, with hugely powerful legs capable of running as fast as a race horse and with hatchet shaped beaks.

When the dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period (65 million years ago) there were no large predators left on the land.  Into this space left vacant with the extinction of animals like Tyrannosaurus rex came the “Terror Birds” – large flightless birds that evolved long, powerful legs and sharp beaks to chase down the newly evolving mammals and to attack them.

The last of their kind, (in South America), became extinct as recently as 15,000 years ago.  Modern humans migrating into South America from the North would most certainly have encountered them.  One wonders what the people who actually saw these creatures would have called them.

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