Extinct Elephant Birds Were 3 Meters Tall and Weighed 700kg. Now, DNA From Fossil Eggshells Reveals How They Lived

Madagascar's extinct elephant bird eggs.

Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds — the largest birds ever to have lived — have captured the public's interest for hundreds of years. (Image: Gifford Miller via Alicia Grealy)

Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds — the largest birds ever to have lived — have captured the public’s interest for hundreds of years. Little is known about them due to large gaps in the skeletal fossil record.

A new study published in Nature Communications used ancient molecules extracted from fossil eggshells to reveal surprising new insights into the biology of these flightless giants. How many species were there? Where did they live? What did they eat?

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Answers to these questions contribute to our understanding of the origin and loss of species, which is especially important today as global biodiversity continues to rapidly decline.

Staggeringly large birds

As a biodiversity hotspot, the island nation of Madagascar is a natural test tube for studying evolution and extinction. The numerous species of now-extinct megafauna that once roamed there play a key role in furthering our understanding of these processes. One such group was the elephant birds, about which precious little has been gleaned since they were first described over 150 years ago.

Andavadoaka, south-west Madagascar.
Andavadoaka, southwest Madagascar. The beautiful landscape of Madagascar where elephant birds once roamed and where their fossil eggshell can be found today. (Image: via Alicia Grealy)

Alongside Africa’s ostrich, Australia’s emu and cassowary, South America’s rhea, and New Zealand’s moa and kiwi, the elephant birds of Madagascar (or vorompatra in the Malagasy language) were large, flightless ratites. They became extinct around 1,000 years ago, soon after humans first settled in Madagascar. These were truly enormous birds, with some weighing over 700 kg and standing up to 3 m tall. Their eggs, weighing 10 kg, were 150 times the size of a chicken’s egg.

Elephant birds (Aepyornithiformes) have been the stuff of legends for hundreds of years, with early sightings possibly being the origin of the mythical creature, roc (or rukh), and inspiring writers such as H. G. Wells. British naturalist David Attenborough also took a special interest in elephant birds, documenting his journey for answers about his own elephant bird egg in Attenborough and the Giant Egg. In recent years, elephant birds were found to be most closely related to the chicken-sized kiwi bird — a result that changed our view of avian evolution.

A giant egg the size of a human torso held by a Malagasy woman.
An elephant bird egg (Aepyornis maximus) reconstructed from fragments in a Toliara (southwest Madagascar) market. In life, some species of elephant bird laid eggs up to 10kg in weight — the volume of about 150 chicken eggs, and larger than dinosaur eggs. (Image: via Gifford Miller)

A patchy record

Yet there is still debate about how many species of elephant bird there actually were. At one time, 16 species were named based on differences found between skeletal fossils. In the 1960s, this dropped to seven species, and the most recent revision classified elephant birds into four species. But why the controversy?

Although these birds became extinct relatively recently, the skeletal fossil record through time and space is patchy. Madagascar’s climate can be very hot and humid, which is not conducive to preserving biological material. When bones are incomplete or fragmented, it can be hard to tell apart different species — and sometimes, the bone doesn’t preserve at all, like in the far north of Madagascar where there have been reports of eggshells but no bones.

Modern DNA technology can help overcome this barrier. In a similar way that we can identify people, or tell how they are related to each other by comparing their DNA, ancient DNA from fossils can help identify unknown specimens or uncover relationships within and between species.

The more differences there are between two organisms’ DNA, the more distantly they are related. These differences can then be used to estimate when species evolved, which provides clues about how and why. But just like the elephant bird bones themselves, the DNA within them is not well preserved either.

A very thick elephant bird eggshell fragment next to a very thin eggshell fragment that belongs to an emu.
A fragment of an elephant bird eggshell (A. maximus) alongside a fragment of an emu eggshell. At up to 4mm, an elephant bird eggshell could be over 3 times as thick as an emu eggshell. The thickness of the eggshell depends on the species of an elephant bird that laid it. (Image: via Alicia Grealy)

Thick and abundant eggshell

This is where eggshell comes in. Compared to other birds, an elephant bird’s eggshell is very thick, so the DNA trapped inside is better protected. Eggshells are also much more abundant than bones, with fragments densely scattered across beaches along Madagascar’s coastline, where these birds presumably once nested.

On top of preserving DNA and proteins, eggshell preserves “stable isotope” signatures that can be matched to those of plants and animals from the environment to get an idea of what the birds were eating and drinking. Physical characteristics of eggshells (such as thickness and pore density) can also reveal information about egg size, bird size, the nesting environment, and nesting behavior, and it can sometimes be used to distinguish between bird groups.

A beach littered with eggshell fragments partially buried in the sand.
Fragments of elephant bird eggshells lying on the beach or buried in sand dunes in Madagascar. Large concentrations of elephant bird eggshells can be found scattered across beaches and sand dunes along the coastline of Madagascar. (Image: via Gifford Miller)

With the help and support of Malagasy locals, our team collected hundreds of 1,000-year-old fossil eggshells from across Madagascar. We looked at their thickness, their micro-structure (through micro-CT scanning), DNA and proteins, and their stable isotopes. We screened hundreds of eggshell fragments to find 21 with sufficient DNA to reconstruct a family tree using eggshells and bone specimens of known identity.

A mysterious lineage

We found there were not as many species of elephant bird as previously thought — there was very little genetic difference between specimens. We think some of the size and shape differences seen in the skeletal fossils are just differences between males and females, and not differences between species. It is common among ratites for females to be much larger than males — and to be mistaken for different species.

Artist’s impression of elephant birds in their natural habitat.
Artist’s impression of elephant birds in their natural habitat. (Image: Bonnie Koopmans via Alicia Grealy)

But more surprisingly, we identified a mystery eggshell from Madagascar’s far north as belonging to a novel lineage of large elephant birds that weighed 230 kg and laid 3 kg eggs. Although these birds were closely related to the elephant birds of central Madagascar, they were genetically distinct and had a different diet. They were also separated by about 1,000 km in distance and 1.5 km in elevation.

This proves that elephant birds were living in Madagascar’s far north where no skeletons have ever been found, a result that is reminiscent of the finding of a new hominid from DNA analysis of an unknown fossil.

These weren’t the only unexpected findings: We also identified potential drivers of speciation (formation of new species) and extreme gigantism in elephant birds. As Madagascar became drier and cooler during the last ice age, the vegetation changed, and elephant birds may have adapted to new niches. This led to the evolution of the largest species in a rapid and recent timeframe — within the last 1.4 million years, a fraction of their evolutionary history.

These findings demonstrate how ancient DNA from eggshells is a promising avenue for studying the evolution of extinct birds. It contributes to our understanding of Madagascar’s past biodiversity — an important step toward understanding how to conserve its unique species into the future.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alicia Grealy, Research Projects Officer, CSIRO

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