Editor’s Note: Nathaniel Rice is The Chronicle’s resident paleo-speculative columnist.
Teratornis merriami skeleton
U-32’s cross-country trails, late Pleistocene (11,000 years ago):
A dark form soars through the evening sky. Her sharp eyes scan the ground miles below, looking for food. On many occasions, the hunter has eaten ground-dwelling prey – rabbits are a favorite – but now the night sets in, and the rabbits (as well as most other small prey items) have long since disappeared. Nevertheless, she’s hungry.
Her perforated nostrils catch a scent: the scent of rotting meat. She banks and swoops low over the trees, finally discovering the source of the smell: an enormous american mastodon (Mammut americanum), a relative of the elephant, has died recently. Scavenging vultures and crows scatter as she approaches. She throws her head back and her hooked beak plunges into the rotting flesh, swallowing fistfulls of it at a time.
This was Teratornis, a huge raptor (bird of prey), and one of the apex predators of North America. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Teratornis, as well as other pleistocene megafauna, mostly frequented the southern United States.
“But wait’’, I hear you asking. “How do we know they were here?’’. The problem with Vermont is that our fossil record is frustratingly scant. Due to erosion, most mesozoic-era fossils have been all but destroyed. Only one large vertebrate is known, an elephant relative in the genus Mammut. As such, Teratornis and other huge avian dinosaurs may never have set foot-erm, wing- in Vermont.
Or did they?
To clarify, the non-avian dinosaurs lived up until 66 million years ago, and their descendents (birds) live to this day. Teratornis and other teratorns lived up until the earliest parts of the Holocene (2,000 years ago). Vermont during the Pleistocene epoch (2-11,000 years ago) was a very different place. Glaciers were retreating, after nearly 2 million years of smothering large sections of North America. Wolves, eagles and catamounts were some of the apex predators who lived on land, as well as bears. These predators would’ve hunted the usual elk, beavers, deer, grouse, turkeys, and the occasional moose, as well as the aforementioned american mastodon.
The first Native Americans would’ve only just begun to settle in this new land. These humans, much like the humans of today, would’ve had a diverse culture and, of course, stories. The Abenaki, who inhabited much of New England, including Vermont, have a very rich mythos. Lots of the figures and stories in the Abenaki’s many stories and legends are simply dismissed by many as just that – simple campfire stories, and nothing more.
The massive, hooked beak and the wickedly-curved talons of Teratornis were ideal for tearing through animals, dead or alive.
The story in question details Pmola. Pmola is said to be an enormous bird who dwells on Mt. Katahdin, Maine, wreaking havoc on mortals who dared trespass onto the peaks. Stories such as these can stretch down from generation to generation, and people living now can still remember their grandparents telling them these tales.
Titanis, another huge bird of prey that stalked North America during the Pliocene and fed on early moose, wild horses, and anything else it could get its beak on.
Could it be possible that eyewitness accounts of Teratornis accounted for or even inspired the tales of Pmola? Since their territories overlapped, it seems perfectly reasonable that the first Native Americans had at least some contact with teratorns. The ancestors of today’s Native Americans came to North and South America around 16,000 years ago, during the waning years of the Pleistocene – around the same time that these birds were flourishing And what birds they were! The common species’ wingspans regularly surpassed 10 feet, and the largest species, the South American Argentavis magnificens, had a wingspan which rivaled that of a small fighter jet!
Large, scavenging birds of prey, such as this turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) still inhabit Vermont to this day
While Teratornis remains are only known from the Southern United States, that doesn’t exclude the possibility that they could’ve made their way up North. Most prehistoric rocks from Vermont have been completely destroyed due to erosion, so even if there were fossils, we wouldn’t see them.
Just because it isn’t in the fossil record doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.