Eggshells in the sandThe 2,200-pound Lady Birds of Madagascar

A massive but surprisingly graceful “elephant bird” once roamed Madagascar, according to a new study giving the title of largest bird to a new species.

The winner? Aepyornis maximuswhich lived more than 1,200 years ago on the island of Madagascar and possessed a raptor-like beak and impressive claws, although it probably fed mostly on plants and the occasional small lizard.

The largest elephant birds were about 9 feet tall and weighed up to 2,200 pounds, about the size of a small car or rhinoceros, according to the size of their eggs. They would have towered over all the other people and animals on the island, including the early Polynesians who arrived there about 2,000 years ago.

Beaked winner

Previously, the title of the largest bird in history belonged to another species of elephant bird, Vorombe Titanwho won the honor thanks to a 2018 survey who analyzed elephant bird bones from around the world.

New research published in 2023, which relied on DNA extracted from eggshells of ancient elephants, concluded that V. titanium and A. maximus the material differed so little that it best formed a species related to modern ostriches, emus, and kiwis. Furthermore, the researchers suggest that V. titanium may actually be the women members of A. maximusin an arrangement similar to kiwi populations, where females are up to twice the size of males.

The researchers spent several years collecting 950 shells from island sites, some of which they first identified from satellite images, in an effort to supplement the birds’ sparse skeletal record. The humid conditions had worn away the bones’ DNA, leaving researchers with little to work with.

In the end, they chose to streamline the elephant bird family, which once stretched to 16 species, down to a scant three.

“These findings are an important step forward in understanding the complex history of these enigmatic birds,” says Alicia Grealey, who conducted this research for her PhD at Curtin University in Australia. in a press release. “There is a surprising amount to discover from the eggshell.”


She partnered with Gifford Miller, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder who has long studied eggshell remains in Australia and elsewhere around the world. They began collecting eggs in the dry southern parts of the island and then moved to the swampy, forested northern part, where they discovered an unexpected new genetic line of A. Maximus. The shells contained mitochondrial DNA sealed so tightly that the team estimated it could have survived intact for 10,000 years.

That’s not to say it was completely intact: Once scientists had extracted the genetic information, they still had to put the individual segments together like a “genetic jigsaw puzzle” to arrive at genomes to study.

As in the case of other megafauna, elephant birds became extinct as Homo sapiens spread all over the world and no one is sure exactly why.

“What did early humans do that led to the extinction of large animals in particular?” Miller said in a press release. “It’s a debate that’s been going on all my life.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *