Century-old 'biggest bird' dispute put to rest

Named Vorombe titan - Malagasy for "big bird" - the creature would have stood at least 3m tall and had an average weight of 650kg, making it the largest bird genus yet uncovered.
Named Vorombe titan - Malagasy for "big bird" - the creature would have stood at least 3m tall and had an average weight of 650kg, making it the largest bird genus yet uncovered.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • After more than a century of conflicting evidence, Anglo-French animosity and an H.G. Wells novella involving murder most fowl, scientists said yesterday they have finally solved the riddle of the world's largest bird.

For 60 million years, the colossal, flightless elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) stalked Madagascar until it was hunted to extinction about 1,000 years ago. In the 19th century, European zoologists obsessed over the creature, pillaging skeletons and fossilised eggs to prove that they had discovered the biggest bird on earth.

But a study released yesterday by British scientists suggests that one species of the elephant bird was even larger than previously thought, with a specimen weighing an estimated 860kg, about the same as a fully grown giraffe.

Dr James Hansford, lead author at the Zoological Society of London, said: "They definitely couldn't fly as they couldn't have supported anywhere near their weight."

In the study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Mr Hansford examined elephant bird bones found around the world, feeding their dimensions into a machine-learnt algorithm to create a spread of expected animal sizes.

Until now, the largest elephant bird was described in 1894 by British scientist C.W. Andrews as Aepyornis titan, a species larger than Aepyornis maximus. But his French rival dismissed the discovery of Aepyornis titan as just an outsized Aepyornis maximus specimen and, for decades, the debate remained deadlocked.

Mr Hansford said his research proved that Aepyornis titan was indeed a different species. But he also found that its bones were so distinct from other elephant bird specimens, that it was in fact a separate genus.

 
 

Named Vorombe titan, Malagasy for "big bird", the creature would have stood at least 3m tall and had an average weight of 650kg, making it the largest bird genus yet uncovered.

Its petrified eggs still fetch large sums at auctions, and it stars in Mr Wells' 1895 work, Aepyornis Island.

Despite having one of the longest existences of any animal in Madagascar, the elephant bird died out after a new wave of human settlers arrived about a millennium ago.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2018, with the headline 'Century-old 'biggest bird' dispute put to rest'. Print Edition | Subscribe