Scientists Discover World’s Largest Bird Ever Thanks To Bone Statistics


Vouronpatra, a large bird which haunts the Ampatres (swamps in the central highlands) and lays eggs like the ostrich’s; so that the people of these places may not take it, it seeks the most lonely places.
Admiral Ètienne de Flacourt in his Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar, 1658.

Elephant bird eggs.D.Bressan

In 1840 an unnamed explorer sent some remains of a gigantic egg from the African island of Madagascar to the French zoologist Paul Gervais, who identified the fragments as belonging to an ostrich egg. Only in 1851, the existence of a yet unknown giant bird was announced during a meeting of the Académie des Sciences, based on the discovery of a complete egg, six-times as big as an ostrich egg. Fifteen years later the first skeleton of an elephant bird, belonging to the family Aepyornithidae, was discovered. Since then various species were described, based on more or less fragmentary fossils. Aepyornis maximus, described by French naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1851, has often been considered to be the world’s largest bird ever. In 1894, British scientist C.W. Andrews described an even larger species, Aepyornis titan, however as there is often sexual dimorphism to be found in birds, this species was dismissed as a large specimen of A. maximus. Apart from the genus Aepyornis,  Aepyornithidae comprises also the genus Mullerornis. However, over time there was much confusion on the exact taxonomy of elephant birds. Some naturalist used very fragmentary material to describe new species. Some reconstructed skeletons were embellished, adding some bones, especially in the neck, to size up the supposed animal. Some proposed species of elephant birds were not even based on skeletal remains, but only on the description of egg fragments.

Historical photograph showing the mounted skeletons of a modern ostrich, in the middle an elephant bird of the genus Aepyornis, and to the far right another elephant bird of the genus Mullerornis.FTM Archive

Zoologist James Hansford and Samuel Turvey tried to solve this puzzle by measuring hundreds of elephant bird bones from museums across the globe, using also computer models to reconstruct fragmentary bones. Based on the statistical distribution of size and anatomical characteristic of the bones, the team concludes that the family Aepyornithidae comprises three genera and at least four distinct species. Apart Aepyornis (with two species) and Mullerornis (one species), the size distribution suggests that a third genus of elephant birds, larger than the two previously mentioned genera, existed on Madagascar some 1,000 years ago.

The new established genus Vorombe, meaning “big bird” in the Malagasy language, comprises also the largest bird ever discovered. Vorombe titan weighed as much as 1,760 lbs (seven-times a modern ostrich), standing 9.8 feet tall. The research describing the discovery is published as a free access paper.

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