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This is the third question in a series of such for my worldbuilding project that deals with plausible fantasy creatures. Previously, I have pondered cockatrices and hydras, but now we move on to another popular mythical animal, the griffin. Last two questions: Is petrifying vision plausible in an animal? and Hydras as parasitic-mating, polyandrous amphibians?

The griffin, or gryphon, is a well-known beast of fantasy that was depicted by the Egyptians, Iranians, Minoans, Greeks, Romans and Medieval people. It is said to have the body and forelegs of a lion and the head, wings and hind legs of an eagle. However, the consistent thing in all portrayals of griffins is that they have four legs and two wings.

Yes, flying quadrupeds, Bane of Worldbuilders. Such an anatomy would require the griffins to be hexapods, which isn't realistic evolutionarily. So, hexapodal griffins must be ruled out. When I realized this shortly after considering including griffins in my worldbuilding project, I thought that I'd have to simply leave them out.

But then I remembered a real-life group of giant flying animals, the Azhdarchids. The largest species in this group being the giraffe-sized Quetzalcoatlus northropi, they walked with their wings as their forelimbs.

Could a bird evolve such locomotion? My premise is that these griffins could have evolved from Accipitrids or similar birds, and grown larger and larger until they gained a wing-walking posture to sustain their massive size. Hypothetically, their movement would be very Azhdarchid-esque, and it would be about the size of a horse.

Now to the real question: would massive wing-walking birds a) evolve rather than some other method of sustaining their frame, and b) survive and hunt with such adaptations?

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    $\begingroup$ If you have already found an animal implementing the kind of feature you have in mind, why are asking the question if it can evolve? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 6 '18 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ One of these days I'm going to start a meta thread about questions that ask "could x evolve?" since they seem to be pretty popular. However, evolution is so complicated it cannot really be simulated or predicted. Maybe this has meaning for most people, I personally have no idea how such a question could be answered other than establishing that such an animal could exist and survive = your question b. The fact that you separated them tells me that I am missing something, could you perhaps explain why you think they are different but answerable questions? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 6 '18 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ sadly won't have time to answer this question in full, but did want to provide another method to having gryphons in your world, it's actually part of a 'series' asking about justifying mythical creatuers so you may want to check out the other questions in the series as well. You can find a particularly long answer here: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/25281/… $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jun 6 '18 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen If the SealBoi was only talking about flying hexapods, I absolutely agree. Many bugs fly in the face of this point, but their size, exoskeleton, and very different sort of wings put them far away from anything like we're talking about here. $\endgroup$ – Josh Jun 6 '18 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ @kiltannen My apologies, I didn't mean that hexapodal animals are implausible universally. I was more talking solely about the evolutionary continuum of Earth, as I want all the creatures in this project to fit phylogenetically into the taxonomy of our world as we know it. Here, I cannot see hexapodal vertebrates evolving any time soon - perhaps ever - but yes, it is possible on other planets. Indeed, it is only by coincidence that the fish who gave rise to tetrapods were four-finned. Had they been six finned, life on earth would have been a very different story. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Jun 8 '18 at 9:01
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This worked out just a little long for a comment,

Simple Answer, yes!

You've already got documented evidence of a creature that moves the way you want it to, and that happened due to evolution, but they're not the only ones... Bats will fly, however if injured and unable to fly they walk along the floor in the manor described.

The Problem

The issue you may have is that creatures way back when were all larger, part of this is back then the density of the atmosphere was lower, therefore lower pressure therefore they can be bigger(oversimplification i know, not getting into that here), if Jurassic park actually existed, a T-Rex would probably be about the size of a family car, rather than a bus. so it depends on the size of the creature you want at the same time as humans, realistically your griffins/gryphon's would probably be about the size of a decent turkey

Possible work arounds

Maybe have them be smaller and be pack animals, weather good or bad is up to you and you can describe them in ways that do so, good animals would be beautiful fur covered creatures that look healthy and then hunt smaller animals intelligently, like a Wolf, whereas evil might be skinnier more leathered skin and very aggressive and act more like hyenas

Or have them be horse size, maybe talk about how they have shrunk since man first saw them, have a debate on wether man was just smaller or they have shrunk, maybe find massive bones belonging to their ancestors, after all giraffes exist and so do elephants, big animals exist all around the world, its how they act compared to smaller aimals is whats important. these animals don't fly but maybe the your gryphons walk more and only fly when needed to save the huge energy required to do so. if you think about the Rhino, Elephant and Girafe they are all slow land based animals but all can move quite quickly when they need to, but never over a great distance

Pneumatized Bones might help but you'd have to offset this against the wieght those bones would have to carry

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm.. I planned for them to be horse-sized. Would pneumatized bones help? $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Jun 6 '18 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ while the weight of the bones would be an issue, bones full of holes are usually more brittle, conventional images of gryphon/gryphon like creatures is they are usually strong and potentially dangerous when angry, unless you want them as a mount then maybe make them wolf sizes and have them be pack animals, the whole image you have described is one that if done right could invoke fear on a large scale, maybe on a smaller scale but they're everywhere could be even more effective... just a thought edited my answer for other ideas $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Jun 6 '18 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ Hollow bones with an internal latticework of triangular "scaffolding" would both be light and very strong. This could work. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Jun 6 '18 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ It could indeed work, how far into detail do you need for your story? latticework would make them both strong and light, but they tend to evolve in smaller creatures, Bones was often used in Weaponry, if your Gryphons do have this bone structure it might be a nice detail to mention how their bones were sort after for spears for that reasons $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Jun 6 '18 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ All I need is a plausible way for wing-walking, horse-sized birds to evolve and survive. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Jun 6 '18 at 12:22
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I would say Absolutely, with the one caveat that they may not be quite as large as you are describing.

There are some species of bat that use their wings as a part of their non-flying locomotive strategy. eg: Vampire Bat

It depends a little on why you want them to exist, and what you want them to achieve with both their flying & non-flying locomotion. I could certainly see some evolutionary pressure moving some creatures in the direction you describe, but it would have to be fairly specific, and target the young in a fashion that creates that evolutionary development in certain directions.

I suspect that having 4 legged animals develop into flying creatures might be more likely than 2 legged birds that already have wings developing into wing walking birds.

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