AEPYORNIS, MULLERORNIS, AND VOROMBE: ALL THE ELEPHANT BIRDS OF MADAGASCAR

Madagascar, we know already, is a land with a huge amount of biodiversity. Part of this has been extinct since quite a long time ago. We talk about giant lemurs and giand birds. All these animals are said were extinct directly by the hands of man. This is the case of the giant wingless birds generically named “elephand birds”. These were huge animals with an important mass, and with an overall aspect reminding that of the ostrich (Strutio) from Africa or the moa (Dinornis) from New Zealand. They were also known to lay enormous eggs, which are still found in some remote areas of S. Madagascar, mostly in numberless fragments, or, sometimes, as entire shells. In general these animals were attributed to two distinct genera, Aepyornis and Mullerornis. Apaprently these animals survived until the 17th Century, with Marco Polo mentioning them as the “rock birds” in his Milione. Well, the human colonisation was said to start around 2000-2500 years ago, but recent findings support for a much older reference. The team of Hansford and colleagues discovered that subfossils eggs of Aepyornis have signs of slaughtering referring to about 10,500 years ago. And this is already a novelty for the human colonization history of Madagascar. If Homo sapiens was already on the island at that time, it logically means that the period of convivence between our species and these animals (and many others as well) was much longer. For this, it is possible that the reason/cause of their extinction was not (only) Homo presence, but, maybe, something else. Beside this, the chronicle of giant birds in Madagascar got the new description of a third important genus, whose name has been baptised as Vorombe. Vorona in Malagasy means “bird” and “be” means “big”. So, Vorombe was a really big bird. Apparently it was the giant in terms of weight of all the birds even lived on Planet Earth: its mass was up to 680 Kg! So far, in their work Hansford and Turvey attributed bone remnants to this new species and reported information on the species distribution in Madagascar, and showed that Aepyornis maximus, A. hildebrandti, Mullerornis modestus and Vorombe titan (the currently accepted species of elephant-birds had different diffusions and had probably different ecologies. It is a shame that these animals went extinct, and wonder which was the species reported in the past by Philibert Commerson in his “Voyage de Madagascar”. Possibly the animals were on the brink of extinction in the 17th Century, and still remains to understand if humans were the only cause of their disappearence.

Hansford J.P., Wright P.C., Rasoamiaramanana A., Pérez V.R., Godfrey L.R., Errickson D., Thompson T. & Turvey S.T., 2018. Early Holocene human presence in Madagascar evidenced by exploitation of avian megafauna. Science Advances, 4 (9): eaat6925 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat6925

Hansford J.P. & Samuel T. Turvey, 2018. Unexpected diversity within the extinct elephant birds (Aves: Aepyornithidae) and a new identity for the world’s largest bird, Royal Society Open Science, 2018, DOI:10.109.

Drawing depicting a Vorombe titan, the heaviest bird in the World (from Wikipedia)

Bone remnants of Vorombe titan (from Hansford and Turvey, 2018)

An egg of an elephant-bird, compared to a hen’s egg

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