Before they were driven to extinction, giant elephant birds roamed Madagascar, weighing up to 2,000 pounds and standing 10 feet tall. New analysis suggests how many species there once were.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST;
Ostriches are the largest birds on the planet today. Males can stand 9 feet tall, half that neck, and weigh more than 300 pounds. But once upon a time there was a larger bird, the elephant bird, which roamed Madagascar before leaving about a thousand years ago.
GIFFORD MILLER: So these birds are really big. They are about 9 feet tall and weigh over a thousand pounds. And they give birth to an egg like a foot and a half in length.
AILSA CHANGE, HOST:
An egg half a foot long. Gifford Miller with the University of Colorado, Boulder. He says that elephants and birds, which are distant relatives, and ostriches, were once able to fly. But when they landed in Madagascar, they could not face serious predators, so they lost their flight skills and their size.
MILLER: They must have flexible DNA that allows them to grow large quite quickly. And they are of a size where they could defend themselves against any natural robber who might come out there.
SHAPIRO: Miller’s colleague Alicia Grely, an Australian government researcher, says elephant birds are somewhat obscure because there aren’t many of them left to study.
ALICE GRAVELY: The fossil record is quite varied. There should be no whole throats.
SHAPIRO: So instead of bones, they looked at fossilized bird eggs that litter the sand and beaches of Madagascar today.
SERIOUSLY: Literally lying on the ground, tons of them.
MILLER: And to think that this is something that’s a few thousand years old and it’s still well-preserved – and it’s like a shell. They are so strong. They are very fragile.
SHAPIRO: Another advantage, scientists say, is that eggs preserve DNA a little better than bone. The team collected 960 shell fragments from locations all over the island.
MILLER: It was quite exciting. We had a Malagasy guide with us all the time who could help us go around and trade with the small local kingdoms, to get permission to be in the country and then wander and find.
CHAN: Back in the lab, they ran a genetic analysis of the shards, and found preliminary evidence of an unknown lineage of birds in northern Madagascar.
SERIOUSLY: So it was kind of surprising that no skeletons were found there.
CHANGE: Results appear in the journal Nature Communications.
SHAPIRO: What happened to the elephant birds, scientists say, no one knows exactly why they disappeared. But they disappeared sometime after the first humans arrived in Madagascar.
CHANGE: Suggesting that some combination of hunting and habitat change could have made humans raptors so that even birds could not match elephants.
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