The Mystery of the Elephant Bird
"It seems certain that several species of Elephant bird survived until a few thousand years ago but quite probable that by recent historical times the smaller ones had all disappeared"
Several months ago I was invited to give a series of illustrated lectures on the flora and fauna of Madagascar at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, which in itself was a positively daunting task. While I was there I had the good fortune to visit the showroom of Deyrolle, the famous Parisian taxidermy business and cabinet of curiosities on the Rue Du Bac, which is now a byword in the field of taxidermy, entomology and the natural sciences.
While I was walking around their Bird Room I happened upon a perfectly intact specimen of the egg of the now extinct Elephant bird, which was for sale, and whose provenance could be traced back to an auction which took place on 24 April 1895 at the famous old auction rooms of Steven’s, which was located at 38 King Street, in London’s Covent Garden.
From the documentation and data that accompanied the egg, it would appear the specimen was purchased by one Mr. T.G. Middlebrook, an avid Victorian collector who acquired the egg for a small ‘free museum’ which formed part of his London public house ‘The Edinburgh Castle’ in Mornington Crescent, Camden Town.
Given the egg was sold to Middlebrook for the princely sum of ‘thirty-six guineas’, I was naturally very surprised to see such a fine specimen was now up for sale at Deyrolle for little more than the price of a new tractor mower, very similar in size to the model I purchased last year for my home in Co. Kerry on the west coast of Ireland…or so I explained to my dear wife Rosemary when I later called her to discuss my interest in the find.
After much deliberation, we both agreed that I should go ahead and purchase the egg, for given its rarity and provenance it was very unlikely that such an opportunity would arise again. As many of our discerning readers will know, my interest in the natural world, and ornithology in particular, has been a constant throughout my life and the possibility of acquiring such a unique specimen for my own cabinet of curiosities could not be missed.
When early Arabian and Indian explorers started returning from their journeys along the coast of Africa with stories of gigantic birds many times the size of man; they brought evidence...huge eggs, up to three feet in circumference. They were the eggs of a bird that would later come to be known as the Elephant bird, or Vouron Patra (Aepyornis maximus). The eggs that the Elephant bird laid were larger than the largest dinosaur eggs, and, in fact, I am reliably informed some scientists have calculated that they were as large as a structurally functional egg could possibly be...the largest single cells to have ever existed on Earth.
The University of Oxford's Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA) in South Parks Road is dedicated to the development and application of scientific methods to the study of the past. It is therefore not surprising they were recently instrumental in leading an international team of researchers to successfully extract ancient DNA from the eggshells of various species of extinct birds, including the Elephant bird and Great Auk.
In a world first, the research, published in 'Proceedings B', The Royal Society's flagship biological research journal, shows that fossil eggshell is a previously unrecognised source of ancient DNA and can provide exceptional long-term preservation of DNA in warmer climates.
The study included fragments of eggshell of an Elephant bird collected by Dr Jean-Luc Schwenninger, a Quaternary geochronologist based at the RLAHA, and more recently the egg made famous by Sir David Attenborough.
As ornithological specimens go, the giant fossilised egg that Sir David Attenborough keeps wrapped up for safe-keeping in the cellar of his London home is not bad for someone with a 60 year career as Britain's foremost natural history documentary film maker.
In a bid to find out more about the foot long egg he collected on the island of Madagascar 55 years ago and the formidable birds that laid them, Sir David recently returned to the island off the east coast of Africa for a new BBC documentary on a quest to discover what happened to the largest birds to ever live on the planet. This is the story of the extinct bird that laid our eggs and which inspired Attenborough’s return expedition to the Indian Ocean.
The flightless Elephant birds, each more than 10 feet tall and weighing around half a ton, were true wonders of the avian world, but what caused these huge birds to die out has remained a mystery for centuries, with some claiming they were hunted to extinction by humans and others blaming climate change. But Sir David believes there is now compelling evidence that suggests the birds were gradually killed off by the early human inhabitants on the island stealing the giant eggs for food. He believes the birds themselves were revered by the indigenous populations, but the use of their eggs for food, combined with the destruction of the forests where the Elephant birds lived, led to their eventual demise.
Recent archaeological evidence has revealed the fragments of Elephant bird egg shells found among the remains of human fires, suggests that the eggs, which are 180 times larger than a chicken egg, regularly provided food for entire families.
Sir David first travelled to Madagascar in 1960 when he was filming for the popular British TV series Zoo Quest. While he was there he discovered a few fragments of thick shell around the camp where he was staying in the south of the island and began offering a reward to the locals if they could bring him more. He said: "A little boy brought in some big pieces that looked as though they fitted together, which indeed they did."
Using sticky tape he painstakingly pieced together the fossilised egg, which is bigger than a rugby ball, before having it professionally restored at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington when he arrived back in London.
Rare examples of this great wonder of the avian world, carried back to Arabia by merchants, are sometimes thought to have generated stories of the mythical 'Roc' or 'rukh'. Perhaps these mighty objects did indeed provide the basis for Arabian tales but the colossal raptor of legend in no way resembles the bird that laid the eggs, for the Elephant bird was very much a ratite (Running Bird) and probably appeared something like a gigantic and excessively ponderous emu. Standing around 3 m (10 ft) high, this great creature was by no means as tall as the largest of the moas, yet it was much more massive in build than any of these species.
The American ornithologist Dean Amadon estimated its weight at around 454 kg (1,000 lb); for comparison, an ostrich's weight can be given at about 136 kg (300 lb). The Elephant bird had massive legs, taloned claws, and a long, powerful neck. Its body was covered in bristling, hair-like feathers, like those of an ostrich or emu, and its beak resembled a broad-headed spear.
Although 'Aepyornis maximus' is the largest and best known of the Madagascan Elephant birds, there were, in fact, several species. These survived until fairly recently and seem to have been distributed quite widely over the island, in much the same way as the moas were once spread across New Zealand.
Radiocarbon dating of bones and eggshells have suggested that the birds were still present on the island around 1,000 years ago. Humans are thought to have arrived on Madagascar around 2,000 years ago. It seems that their natural enemies were few, perhaps only crocodiles – apart, that is, from man – posing any real threat. The fossil records seem confined to the Pleistocene Epoch and more recent remains (from the past two million years only), leaving the early history of the 'Aepyornithiformes' little understood.
Dr Tom Higham, deputy director of the radiocarbon accelerator unit at the RLAHA in Oxford, recently said: "We have done dating on quite a few Elephant bird eggs and when we looked back at the dates we were getting, the youngest were around 900AD. The population of humans on the island increased around that time too."
It seems certain that several species of Elephant bird survived until a few thousand years ago but quite probable that by recent historical times the smaller ones had all disappeared leaving only the monstrous 'Aepyornis maximus' extant. It can be reasonably assumed that these birds lived either by cropping the lower branches of trees and shrubs, or by grazing.
Because there is no rainforest fossil record in Madagascar, it is not known for certain if there were species adapted to dense forest dwelling, like the cassowary in Australia and New Guinea today. However, some rainforest fruits with thick, highly sculptured endocarps, such as that of the currently undispersed and highly threatened forest coconut palm 'Voanioala gerardii', may have been adapted for passage through ratite guts, and the fruit of some palm species.
As man's presence on the island made itself increasingly felt, the birds were probably pinned back into the loneliest and most inaccessible parts of Madagascar. Little is known of the settlement of the great island before the coming of the Europeans; whether or not Madagascans actively hunted the huge birds is a matter of speculation – presumably some did. Perhaps the gigantic eggs seemed of rather more value than the birds themselves and these eggs were surely prized by the indigenous population not only for their food content but also for the ornamental and utilitarian value of the shells.
In 1298, while imprisoned in Genoa, the celebrated 13th century Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo dictated an account of his 26 years of travel to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa. The book, which soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form, became known as 'The Travels of Marco Polo', and depicted his journeys throughout Asia. In chapter 33, "Concerning the Island of Madagascar", he wrote that the Great Khan had sent him to investigate curious reports of giant birds.
It was also Marco Polo who first spoke of the Arabian tales of legendary creatures inhabiting unknown lands, which included the monstrous 'Roc' or 'rukh', a mythical bird of prey, often said to be an eagle quite able to carry away an elephant in its talons. The story was based on the adventures of 'Sinbad the Sailor', who encountered the creature and destroyed its nest and giant eggs in revenge for attacking his ship. Even H.G. Wells wrote a short story about the bird in 1894 entitled 'Aepyornis Island'. These earlier accounts are today believed to describe the Elephant bird.
The Malagasy people are known to have had contact with Arab traders over several centuries, but had fiercely resisted colonisation. The first Europeans to visit the island were the Portuguese in 1500. Dutch and French expeditions established coastal settlements after 1509, penetrating the interior 150 years later. In the 16th century, Dutch, Portuguese and French sailors returned from the Indian Ocean with huge eggs taken as curios.
When the French claimed Madagascar as a possession in 1642, the great Elephant birds probably still survived in isolated places. In 1658, under the heading 'Vouron Patra', meaning "bird of the Ampatres", the first French Governor of Madagascar, Étienne de Flacourt, described "a large bird which haunts the Ampatres and lays eggs like the ostriches; so that the people of these places may not take it, it seeks the most lonely places to nest." Whether de Flacourt actually saw the 'Aepyornis maximus' or whether he relied solely on the testimony of others is not clear. On his journey back to France he was killed by Algerian pirates without further elaborating on his account.
For the next 200 years the French kept their foothold on the coasts of Madagascar without ever being able to explore the interior thoroughly, and also without gathering further firm word of the Elephant bird. Then, during the early 1830s, a French naval officer, Victor Sganzin, is supposed to have seen a gigantic egg and perhaps even acquired the specimen. It was rumoured that an egg was sold to Jules Pierre Verreaux, the French botanist, ornithologist and professional collector of natural history specimens, whose family business, Maison Verreaux, at Place des Vosges in Paris, was the earliest known company that dealt with objects of natural history. However, the ship carrying this treasure back to France ran aground on the rocks off La Rochelle with the prize sinking to the bottom.
A few years later another Frenchman, this time by the name of Dumarele, claimed he was shown the shell of an enormous egg by the natives. This shell he had tried without success to buy; the owners regarded it as a very rare item and the bird that laid it even rarer.
In 1851, rumours of gigantic eggs were finally substantiated. No less than three were dug out of a gravel-bank in south-western Madagascar and taken to France by Captain Arnauld Abadie, together with fragments of bone. They were exhibited before the French Academy of Sciences, and, as might be imagined, were received with utter astonishment. These eggs are now kept at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) in Paris.
Over the years a considerable number of sub-fossilised eggs have been found intact. The National Geographic Society in Washington holds a splendid specimen of an Elephant bird egg which was given to Luis Marden in 1967. The specimen is completely intact and contains the skeleton of the unborn bird. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver, Colorado) holds two intact eggs, one of which is currently on display. There is also an intact specimen of an Elephant bird's egg in the Natural History Museum, London. Another two eggs can be found at The Melbourne Museum in Australia, while a cast of an egg is preserved in the collections of The Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London.
For how long the Elephant bird survived the arrival of Europeans was, and remains, a mystery. It is probable that it still lived at the time of de Flacourt but the last of these gigantic birds is likely to have expired before the beginning of the 19th century and the awakening of interest in the amazing flora and fauna of Madagascar.
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