Birds – The Elephant-birds

A FEW years after the discovery of the Moas in New Zealand another race of gigantic extinct birds came to light in Madagascar, and in a peculiar manner. Some natives visiting the Mauritius for the purpose of buying rum brought with them as receptacles to contain the liquor two enormous egg-shells. These eggs, together with a portion of the metatarsus of a bird, fell into appreciative hands, and were sent to Paris, where M. I. G. Saint-Hilaire brought them before the Paris Academy of Sciences, giving the bird the name of AEpyornis maximus, signifying literally ” the bird as big as a mountain.” As may be supposed, this discovery excited great scientific interest, and, as Stejneger says, ” brought to mind the old story of the famous Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who located the Ruc or Roc, the giant bird of Arabian tales, upon Madagascar.”

Shortly after this the question was taken up seriously by Professor Bianconi,who attempted to prove its truth, since it was thought possible that Polo actually might have heard rumors of the existence of these immense eggs and the presumably gigantic bird that laid them. These vague speculations are perhaps not to be much wondered at, as the eggs were larger than any before dreamed of,measuring more than thirteen inches by nine and one half inches and having a capacity of more than two gallons. This discovery stimulated exploration, which has resulted in bringing to light vast quantities of broken egg-shells, occasional entire shells, and a considerable number of bones, from which have been described two quite distinct genera and thirteen nominal species of Elephant-birds. It has been determined that they ranged over the whole of the southern half of Madagascar, but were apparently most abundant in the south and the southwestern portions. The bones are found principally in the beds of ancient shallow lakes, those along the coast being very salt, those of the interior of course fresh, and now used by the natives as rice-gardens. The eggs, however, appear to be found only or very largely in the sand-dunes along the coast. On this point Mr. J. T. Last, who made extensive explorations in the interests of the Zoölogical Society of London, says: “During all my explorations, though I have found the bird’s bones a long way inland, I have never seen any fragments of eggs either with them or inland anywhere. Everywhere along the south and southwest coast fragments are to be found in abundance, especially on the hillsides about St. Augustin’s Bay. Bushels of broken egg-shells could be gathered in this district with but little trouble. From this I judge that the birds used to live generally in the more inland parts of south-central Madagascar and at certain seasons came to the coast to lay their eggs, after which they betook themselves again to their inland homes. I do not know whether this idea is quite correct, but it seems to me very probable, from the fact that their eggs, both whole and broken, are only found on or near the seacoast.”

Although the Elephant-birds have not been found to be as large as was at first supposed, the largest not exceeding the height of an Ostrich and the smallest being about the size of a large Bustard, they were nevertheless of large size, chiefly remarkable for the great massiveness of the hind limbs, the leg bones in the largest species (Aepyornis maximus) being about thirteen inches long and eighteen inches in circumference at the upper extremity. Normally they appear to have had four toes, but in some the back one (hallux) was wanting. They had apparently a relatively small skull, but this is imperfectly known, and an unusually short and broad breast-bone which is without trace of a keel. The wing was quite rudimentary, and they were of course flightless. These birds appear to find their nearest relatives among the Cassowaries and Emeus, but many points in their structure remain to be elucidated and interpreted.

The natives of Madagascar still assert that some of these great birds are yet living in the interior, but this is highly improbable, and it seems hardly likely that any have existed within the past two or three hundred years. The manner of their extermination is unknown, but it is more than likely that it was brought about by the hand of man. If their breeding grounds were localized, as seems probable, it would only have been necessary to persistently destroy the eggs to have caused their ultimate extinction.