Prehistoric giants of the sky

Credit: Johnson-Mortimer

The huge aerial predators that brought death from above

Jumbo raptor

Haast’s Eagle ▶ 1.8 MYA-1400 CE

With talons the size of tigers’ claws, these monstrous eagles preyed on helpless herbivores of New Zealand’s South Island. Swooping at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour, they could knock victims off their feet with the sheer force of impact. Their favourite prey were giant flightless birds called moas, which could weigh up to 250 kilograms. Compared to the size of its body, Haast’s eagles’ three-metre wingspan was relatively short. This meant that they would have killed moas on the ground rather than carry them away. Their terrifying, razor-sharp talons could quickly incapacitate victims by delivering crushing blows to their head or neck. 

Biggest bird

Argentavis ▶ 6 MYA

Dwarfing even the Haast’s eagle, Argentavis is one of the largest birds to have ever lived. Its seven-metre wingspan meant it was suited to gliding rather than flapping, and it used air currents to stay aloft. Argentavis’ massive size made it impossible to perform a running take-off, so it relied on height to get airborne, taking advantage of slopes and headwinds like a hang-glider pilot. The so-called ‘monster bird’ could use its sharp talons and hooked beak to attack its prey, soaring over vast areas of land in search of victims. Argentavis may have also scavenged, its intimidating size driving other hunters away from a kill, in order to help itself to the carcass.

Gigantic fly

Meganeura ▶ 300 MYA

One of the biggest insects to ever exist, the Meganeura was a member of the griffinflies, which are closely related to dragonflies. This prehistoric insect benefited from a higher percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere in the period in which it lived. This allowed it to grow to and maintain its huge size. It used its large eyes to spot prey such as small amphibians and other insects, which it grabbed with its legs while in midair.

Plane-sized pterosaur

Quetzalcoatlus northropi ▶ 70-65 MYA

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest-known species of pterosaur, the group of flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs. With a wingspan of ten metres or more, it was roughly the size of a small jet plane. Its toothless beak suggests that it hunted small prey that didn’t require chewing, such as baby dinosaurs, and possibly also scavenged for carrion. Quetzalcoatlus is also thought to have roamed on land, because it had small, cushioned feet that were suited to moving over firm terrain. If this is true, it may have hunted like a modern-day stork, snatching small prey up in its beak.

Credit: Johnson-Mortimer

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 93, written by Jack Griffiths

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