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Where did all these Phorusrhacos come from?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If, as I have, you’ve spent copious time wandering the British countryside, visiting amusement parks and visitor attractions that feature life-sized ‘prehistoric animals’, you’ll surely have seen all those Phorusrhacos* models. Look, here’s a little montage I made…

* You might have seen the name Phorusrhacos written as Phororhacos (and Phorusrhacidae written as Phororhacidae). The former is the older, and thus correct, spelling, coined by Florentino Ameghino in 1887.

Phorusrhacos models at various outdoor attractions. Clockwise from top left: Dan Yr Ogof National Showcaves of Wales (Swansea); Paulton’s Park (Hampshire, England); Wookey Hole Caves (Somerset, England); Drayton Manor Theme Park (Staffordshire, England). All images by Darren Naish except one at bottom left, by Colleen Goh.

Here are two more of the things, this time at Dinosaur Adventure, a theme park in Norfolk (England).

Image (c) Dinosaur Adventure, Lenwade, Norfolk.

There was a time when all, or nearly all, of these models had the same black and white livery, unashamedly based on Zdeněk Burian’s excellent painting (shown below). The pose is also based on the bird in the Burian painting. I best know the image concerned from the version that appears in Zdeněk Špinar’s and Burian’s palaeoart classic Life Before Man (Špinar & Burian 1972) but this only features half of the whole painting and crops out the male bird on the left (the male is meant to be giving the larger female a ‘gift’). Nowadays, some or many of these models have been given different paint jobs. As I’ve said on several occasions now, the Burianesque black-and-white Phorusrhacos is one of those palaeoart meme things, the look for the creature being copied by artist after artist for no reason other than that they must have looked at Burian’s painting and thought that the colour scheme he devised was the ‘right one’ for this animal.

Look at this… it’s a slide from the section of my All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) talk on palaeoart memes… (incidentally, I plan sometime to write an article – perhaps even a proper technical one – on the ‘palaeoart meme’ subject. It really warrants serious study)…

The contention: Charles Knight's Phorusrhacos of 1901 (top left) was inspirational to Burian, who illustrated this bird twice (top middle and top right). And these illustrations were integral to the reconstructions used by.. just about everyone else who depicted the bird in the decades that followed!

But here’s the interesting thing. Where do all of these identical models actually come from? Who makes them? I mean, is there some little factory somewhere in the UK that churns these models out? It would explain why you see identical models of several prehistoric animals at these places: there are identical Iguanodon and Styracosaurus models, too. After a modicum of research, I’ve found out about a Chinese company called simply Dinosaur Maker, based in Zigong, that manufactures the exact Phorusrhacos you see here. If you want one, seems this is where you order them from (oh, and yes, I’d love one, by the way). But is this really where all the British examples from? I really don’t know. Does anybody know? And — do you see these models in countries other than the UK?

There is quite a lot about phorusrhacids and related birds in the Tet Zoo archives. It’s mostly very dated and in dire need of revision, but, if you’re really interested…

Refs – -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.

Špinar, Z. & Burian, Z. 1977. Life Before Man. Thames and Hudson, London.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 38 Comments

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  1. 1. ectodysplasin 6:59 pm 07/3/2014

    The answer, of course, is from an undiscovered fossil island chain in the South Pacific.

    Link to this
  2. 2. naishd 7:03 pm 07/3/2014

    HA :) For those who don’t know, ectodysplasin might be making a reference to the massive comment-battle still going on over in May’s article on ratite evolution…

    Link to this
  3. 3. ectodysplasin 7:21 pm 07/3/2014

    Well, the comment battle might go back to the Jurassic. The fossil record of comments is inconclusive.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Yodelling Cyclist 7:45 pm 07/3/2014

    Oh God, we’re going to be doing this Permian Bear shtick for years I mean, how did the whole gorgonopsid thing get started?

    That was way the hell back at the dawn of Version 2, iirc.

    Link to this
  5. 5. naishd 7:49 pm 07/3/2014

    Yes, Permian bears and Mesozoic hippos are memes now :)

    The gorgonopsian thing started after a commenter insisted that a baboon skull was no such thing. Incidentally, not only did this initiate a meme, it also led to an idea that we explored in All Yesterdays

    Link to this
  6. 6. irenedelse 7:50 pm 07/3/2014

    But would plastic Phorusracids hunt and eat garden gnomes?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Yodelling Cyclist 8:16 pm 07/3/2014

    Nah, gnomes are a hardy bunch. Gnomes ssaddle and ride these babies into battle against their most vile enemies.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Yodelling Cyclist 8:19 pm 07/3/2014

    (Those enemies of course being ropens.)

    How did that one start, since we’re on the subject?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Dartian 3:09 am 07/4/2014

    the male bird on the left (the male is meant to be giving the larger female a ‘gift’)

    Oh? And I always thought that the bird approaching from the right was going to attempt to steal the prey from the other bird.

    the massive comment-battle still going on over in May’s article on ratite evolution

    Is that comments thread now the longest in Tet Zoo history?

    Permian bears and Mesozoic hippos are memes now

    At least we’ve gotten something net positive out of that bizarre thread. :)

    But would plastic Phorusracids hunt and eat garden gnomes?

    Dunno about that, but the world would certainly need a predator that keeps garden gnome populations in check.

    Link to this
  10. 10. BrianL 3:12 am 07/4/2014

    Of course, the question of ‘where did all these phorusrhacids come from?’ certainly applies to our current understanding of Paleogene phorusrhacid distribution. Large flightless birds that occurred in South America, Africa and Europe? What’s going on there?
    Obviously, this must date back to Jurassic vicariance. There’s no possibility that phorusrhacid ancestors or basal phorusrhacids could have been flighted or have spread along anything but now submerged island chains. :)
    Seriously though, might phorusrhacids have been capable swimmers?

    Link to this
  11. 11. Tayo Bethel 4:53 am 07/4/2014

    What information do we have on the life appearance of phorusracids?

    Link to this
  12. 12. Heteromeles 9:23 am 07/4/2014

    Has anyone thought to ask an employee where the phorusrhacid came from? As for the color scheme, I assume that someone wanted them big turkey things to look less weather-beaten and more festive, and white does show up the dirt quite well, after all. Still, after primeval, I’m kind of surprised (and pleased) that no one went in for that show’s rather muddy color scheme. Still, I wonder who owned (or owns) the mold used to make them. It’s probably sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Zoovolunteer 2:13 pm 07/4/2014

    In 2012 and 2013 we had an exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs at Bristol from a company called Billings Promotions. I gather there is an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo this summer from the same company. Some of them seemed more realistic than others, but the Citipati (with feathers) was quite impressive. Not to mention the full size moving T.rex, which we had to put signs up to warn parents their kids might be scared of it.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Augray 3:36 pm 07/4/2014


    “…the world would certainly need a predator that keeps garden gnome populations in check.”

    Fortunately, there is such a predator:

    Link to this
  15. 15. ChrisManias 4:46 am 07/5/2014

    Isn’t the black-white coloration (particularly of the Knight and 1st Burian one) just based on the secretary bird, which also often gets trotted out as the closest modern analogue for Phorusrhacids?

    So this makes the depiction seem plausible by linking it with an extant animal, and also means the picture presents the hypothesis that Phorusrhacids had secretary bird-like lifestyles.

    Link to this
  16. 16. naishd 6:28 am 07/5/2014

    ChrisManias (comment # 15): yes, I think that Knight and/or Burian looked at secretary birds (sorry, I didn’t mention that in this article but I have elsewhere). But my point is that those artists that followed copied the Burian colour scheme, not the colour scheme of the Secretary bird. Indeed, the Burian image and its clones have a wholly black body whereas the Secretary bird has a grey body (only its remiges, retrices and leg feathers being black).

    Link to this
  17. 17. irenedelse 10:33 am 07/5/2014

    Comparing Knight’s and Burian’s makes me think that Knight drew inspiration from secretary birds (greyish colour, slender and partly feathered legs…) and Burian from ostriches, at least in the second painting: black body (like a male ostrich) and naked muscular legs.

    Link to this
  18. 18. DavidMarjanovic 10:50 am 07/5/2014

    What information do we have on the life appearance of phorusracids?

    Just the skeleton.

    Fortunately, there is such a predator:

    Day saved.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Heteromeles 11:02 am 07/5/2014

    Um, are we advancing a potentially panbiogeographic hypothesis about how these bird models came to be? Couldn’t it have been meme dispersal, or independent (creative) evolution?

    Gotta love garden kaiju too. Thanks Augray.

    Link to this
  20. 20. John Harshman 1:06 pm 07/5/2014

    So, is there any good evidence tying phorusrhacids to seriemas?

    Link to this
  21. 21. Heteromeles 7:01 pm 07/5/2014

    @John: you don’t believe Wikipedia? Shock, horror.

    Link to this
  22. 22. naishd 10:53 am 07/6/2014

    The idea that phorusrhacids have a close affinity with seriemas is partly based on the strong overall similar present between early, gracile phorusrhacids (like mesembrionithines) and seriemas, and surprisingly few ‘good’ morphological characters have been proposed to support the relationship — they include a block-like hypotarsus that lacks canals (Mayr 2007) and a raptorial pedal ungual II (these characters are also present in idiornithids). Mayr (2002) lists a set of characters that unite idiornithids, seriemas and phorusrhacids with trumpeters. This set of anatomical characters is reasonably good and I think that the groups concerned sure do ‘look’ as if they have a genuine affinity — contrarily, of course, we could well have been fooled by convergence. Given the position for seriemas favoured by molecular analyses, I haven’t yet seen anyone make a big deal of the possibility that phorusrhacids are members of a clade that otherwise includes falcons, parrots and passerines. I did always like the idea that caracaras look like little phorusrhacids…

    Incidentally, I just checked Livezey (1998) to see which characters support his recovery of a phorusrhacid-seriema clade. However, while he lists the characters he used, there’s no data matrix nor explanation of which characters support which nodes… so I have no idea how you’re really supposed to use his data. Is there a data matrix somewhere that I’ve missed (supp info or such?).

    Refs – -

    Livezey, B. C. 1998. A phylogenetic analysis of the Gruiformes (Aves) based on morphological characters, with an emphasis on the rails (Rallidae). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 353, 2077-2151.

    Mayr, G. 2002. A new specimen of Salmila robusta (Aves: Gruiformes: Salmilidae n. fam.) from the Middle Eocene of Messel. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 76, 305-316.

    - . 2007. Synonymy and actual affinities of the putatie Middle Eocene “New World vulture” Eocathartes Lambrecht, 1935 and “hornbill” Geiseloceros Lambrecht, 1935 (Aves, Ameghinornithidae). Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81, 457-462.

    Link to this
  23. 23. irenedelse 11:00 am 07/6/2014

    Yodelling Cyclist:

    I think TetZoo owes the ropen meme to Young Earth Creationnists who dabble in cryptozoology, back in 2007.

    Link to this
  24. 24. naishd 11:10 am 07/6/2014

    Ropens: yes, those brilliant and intelligent YEC cryptozoologists did a lot to cement the TetZoo/ropen link. But the first time ropens made it big in the TetZooverse – I mean, in comments/discussions – might be in the identifications proffered here, in March 2008.

    Link to this
  25. 25. irenedelse 11:22 am 07/6/2014

    Ha! John “Nyctopterus” Conway, of course, rooting for modern pterosaurs! :-)

    Link to this
  26. 26. Dartian 3:42 am 07/7/2014

    I did always like the idea that caracaras look like little phorusrhacids…

    LIke this, you mean? ;)

    Link to this
  27. 27. irenedelse 4:19 am 07/7/2014


    Looks a lot like the one in Knight’s painting! Down to the black crest… Very impressive.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Dartian 4:51 am 07/7/2014

    Very impressive

    Regarding impressive caracaras; even at the risk of going off-topic, I can’t resist showing this amazing – if brutal – picture. (Apparently, this incident was an ambush attack by the caracara and thus perhaps not a ‘fair fight’. Even so, however, this is AFAIK the only photographic piece of evidence of any animal preying on large skuas.)

    Link to this
  29. 29. irenedelse 6:09 am 07/7/2014

    Whoa! No wonder Dougal Dixon took inspiration from them to create the karakilla, “terror bird of the future”, for the TV the series The Future Is Wild

    Link to this
  30. 30. Dartian 6:58 am 07/7/2014

    No wonder Dougal Dixon took inspiration from them to create the karakilla, “terror bird of the future”

    You know, I’ve never rated caracaras very highly with regards to being formidable predators, but recently I’ve started to think that perhaps I’ve slightly underestimated them. There is, for example, also a published report of caracaras (unsuccessfully) trying to predate infant howler monkeys (McKinney, 2009).

    McKinney, T. 2009. Anthropogenic change and primate predation risk: crested caracaras (Caracara plancus) attempt predation on mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata). Neotropical Primates 16, 24-27.

    Link to this
  31. 31. naishd 7:15 am 07/7/2014

    Well over 23 comments, which means…

    (oh, thanks for thoughts and links on caracaras, very neat).

    Link to this
  32. 32. BrianL 9:06 am 07/7/2014

    I once had the displeasure of having a Striated Caracara push off from my neck/shoulder area. This happened because I was in the audience of the free flight demonstration in Parque Paradisio in Belgium, where the demonstrators apparently found it a good idea to throw little pieces of meat for their caracaras into the audience, and near me to boot. Cue a caracara rapidly flying in my direction, landing on top of the seat in front of me, jumping on my shoulder, pushing off from it while pushing its talons in my skin and clothing and landing in my mother’s lap, only to run off via the ground. It didn’t pierce my skin, but it did hurt.

    Having even a *Psilopterus* do the same would probably be a lot more unpleasant though.

    Link to this
  33. 33. DavidMarjanovic 9:24 am 07/7/2014

    this amazing – if brutal – picture


    Link to this
  34. 34. irenedelse 1:58 pm 07/7/2014


    I only experienced something of the sort with lemurs, and it was mildly frightening. They don’t have claws but they jump over people’s heads and through the crowd—fast. Like they were flying. (This was at the Ile des Lemuriens attraction, at the Parc des Felins near Paris.)

    Link to this
  35. 35. andrewwright73 4:31 am 07/8/2014

    On a bird tangent I saw this today:

    Good to see pseudotooth birds in the mainstream media! :-)

    Link to this
  36. 36. irenedelse 8:02 am 07/8/2014


    “Like something out of Game of Thrones”… Paleontologist are getting savvy at media-friendly quotes. ;-)

    Link to this
  37. 37. Stripeycat 6:40 pm 07/8/2014

    Brian and Irene: a friend of mine was stupid (or drunk) enough to grab a mallard on a punting trip many years ago. It decided the best escape route was to flap-scramble up his chest and jump off from his head. Once we all stopped laughing, he needed the assorted cuts cleaning up: some had penetrated through his shirt. I shudder to think how much damage the caracara could have done if frightened.

    Link to this
  38. 38. Stripeycat 6:48 pm 07/8/2014

    How good is the size estimate for P. sandersi? (It’s behind the ****ing PNAS paywall, unless he published it somewhere else without internet presence.) I suppose there’s still plenty of room to downgrade the estimate and still have the biggest bird ever to fly, anyway.

    Link to this

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