Posted in History, Science, Wildlife

Animal of the Week: The Elephant Bird (!)

The Elephant Bird, which once roamed on the island of Madagascar, was nearly 10 feet tall. Credit: The Daily Mail

*~*This post marks the first in what will hopefully be a weekly series highlighting animals and wildlife. *~*

When I first read about this little-known animal, I was definitely intrigued. I had heard about several bird species (I’m a bit of an aficionado when it come to animals), but never this one. What’s even more intriguing is that it is now extinct. I know what you’re thinking — why discuss an extinct species? For a few reasons, in fact. First, what does it matter if they’re extinct? Learning should never be contained to the present (I’m also a history aficionado). Second, this bird is awesome. Third (and perhaps most important), a major recent discovery has baffled scientists. Allow me to explain.

Until about the 17th century, the elephant bird roamed the fields of Madagascar. It weighed about 600 pounds, measured around 10 feet tall, and couldn’t fly. Flightless birds are known as ratites genealogically, a bird family which includes the ostrich and the emu. But here’s where things get interesting. From skeleton remains and DNA samples, scientists can now confirm that the elephant bird isn’t a close cousin of the ostrich (which is found in mainland Africa), but is in fact more closely related to the kiwi — a flightless bird native to New Zealand!

The Southern Brown Kiwi, about the size of a chicken, is the closest relative to the giant Elephant Bird. Credit: Geoff Moon / Corbis.

Let’s put this context: the island of Madagascar and New Zealand are over 7,000 miles apart, so how could a flightless bird possibly traverse that incredible distance, and over water no less? Furthermore, the size of the kiwi (now we’re still talking about the animal, lest there be any confusions with the fruit) is far smaller than that of the elephant bird.

But first a word about distance. The only plausible explanation for cousin flightless birds on different continents lies in the supercontinent known as Gondwana. Around 160 million years ago, the landmasses of Africa (elephant bird) and New Zealand (kiwi) were connected. Evolutionary theories explain how these species were related, but we’ll leave it to this — there is nothing on the apparent of these birds that would lend a clue to their close relationship.

A) The break-up of Gondwana into separate continents. B) The ratite family tree, as you’d predict from the rafting hypothesis. C) The actual ratite family tree. Credit: Mitchell et al, 2014.

Neither is this: the kiwi is about the size of a chicken, and the smallest of the species could fit inside an elephant bird’s egg (visualized below). On the flip side, however, the size of the egg of a kiwi is the largest of any species in the world in relation to its body size. It is theorized that this is because they descend from none other than the elephant bird.

An adult brown kiwi (Apteryx australis) beside the egg of a huge elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus). Credit: Reuters/Paul Scofield, Kyle Davis/Canterbury Museum (New Zealand)/Handout via Reuters

Now tell me that’s not phenomenal.

– Curious x Nature

Sources: National Geographic, San Diego Zoo, Scientific American, The Daily Mail, Museum Victoria

6 thoughts on “Animal of the Week: The Elephant Bird (!)

  1. Wow, this is incredible! :-O I love how there is literally no similarity between the two size-wise, but they’re close cousins

    Love the Gondwana graphic, i wonder why does the ostrich has no other close relatives in the rattite family tree in Africa?

  2. Interesting!! The kiwi is quite funny looking! So why is it called an elephant bird?

    Looking forward to reading more like this! I love animals and history too! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s