This Gargantuan Chook Weighed as Considerably as a Sporting activities Motor vehicle

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This is Episode Two of a 4-component Fascination on seriously large birds. You can hear to Episode One here.

Flora Lichtman (tape): For individuals who’ve under no circumstances listened to of an elephant bird, what do they need to know? 

James Hansford: I assume, very first off, the dimension. They are colossal.

[CLIP: Music] 

Lichtman: I’m Flora Lichtman, with Scientific American’s Science, Quickly, and this is Episode Two of my homage to Earth’s serious big birds. Very last episode, we talked about the largest chook to fly. These days we’re homing in on the heaviest chicken to set its scaly foot down on world Earth: the elephant chicken.

Hansford: They are fantastic.

Lichtman: This is elephant fowl skilled and paleontologist James Hansford …

Hansford: Just complete titans of the fowl earth.

Lichtman: Elephant birds lived in Madagascar. They appear to be to have been generally herbivorous. None of them flew. There were being a variety of different species that ranged from the size of an ostrich to the sizing of a intelligent motor vehicle.

Hansford: The largest I measured for any of the elephant birds was someplace around 1,900 kilos.

Lichtman (tape): My god, I’m obtaining a really hard time actually even picturing that.

Hansford: Yeah. How do you even photo it? Nicely, when I calculated the femur all over, it was 30 centimeters, in excess of a foot in circumference. So that is ginormous.

Lichtman (tape): Oh my god. The circumference of the femur is above a foot.

Hansford: Yeah. 

Lichtman (tape): Shut the cluck up.

Hansford: [Laughs]

[CLIP: Music]

Lichtman: These behemoths appeared 30 million yrs ago, and they stuck all around a extensive time.

Hansford: They ended up alive up until finally 1,000 years in the past, but we know so much less about them than, say, Tyrannosaurus rex.

Alicia Grealy: There are all these thoughts because there are extremely massive gaps in the fossil report. 

Lichtman: That is paleogeneticist Alicia Grealy. She worked with James and other colleagues to response some simple thoughts about elephant birds, this sort of as: Who are they connected to? How did they evolve? Who created up the team?

Grealy: There’s just been a whole lot of discussion throughout heritage about how many species there were being.

Lichtman: Scientists have debated the elephant birds family tree due to the fact their discovery in the 1800s. Of particular desire are the most elephantine members of the elephant chook herd …


Lichtman: Like the one particular with the big leg bones that James stated. For a long time, the most important specimens experienced been labeled as jumbo associates of a species acknowledged as Aepyornis maximus. But they are so gigantic—hundreds of lbs heavier than the other A. maximus specimens—and their bones seem kinda distinctive, too.

Grealy: And a few decades ago there was a suggestion that these most significant bones have been so major that they ought to have belonged to a distinctive species.

Lichtman: Alicia required to investigate this. And as a paleogeneticist, she imagined ancient DNA could support. The challenge was that DNA degrades rapid in tropical environments.

Grealy: Accurately, you have acquired the blended effects of, you know, h2o problems and erosion and UV that—all of these items degrade DNA.

Hansford: The capability to get genetic substance, that stuff in Madagascar is genuinely difficult. I liken it to receiving blood from a stone.

Lichtman: But Alicia had an thought. She puzzled if they could crack this big bird thriller using eggs.

Grealy: Eggshell preserves the DNA remarkably nicely. And in some cases it is the only resource of DNA from animals that stay in very warm and tropical climates. And due to the fact DNA has been recovered from eggshell from other extinct birds prior to, we believed, Can we do the identical for Madagascar’s elephant birds?

Lichtman: And there’s a lot of eggshell to choose from. These elephant chook eggs were being enormous. 

Grealy: They were about 150 occasions the sizing of a hen egg. And that’s greater than any dinosaur egg.

Lichtman: If you clutched just one in your hands, it would be heavier than a bowling ball, with the shell as thick as a evening meal plate.

Grealy: Yeah, they have been about 10 kilos…, which is about 22 lbs …..

Lichtman: And compared with elephant hen bones, the eggs are simple to come across. Alicia suggests that if you go to the seashore the place she worked in the southwest of the region, you can be walking on eggshells.

Grealy: They’re just scattered certainly everywhere. A person man or woman described it as paved with eggshell.

Lichtman: But if gathering the eggs was in excess of-quick, acquiring DNA out of them wasn’t. DNA can be scrambled in beach-fried eggs. So the workforce looked for shells buried in dig websites and dunes. Then Alicia took each shell, cleaned it and floor it into a powder. From that egg dust, intellect-bogglingly, she pulled out parts of DNA from birds that had been dead for 1,000 yrs.

Grealy: It is brain-boggling to me as effectively, in fact.

Lichtman: And she utilised that DNA to try to determine out if those further, excess-massive elephant birds had been their own species or not.

Grealy: The DNA evidence from the eggshell indicates that there was not two unique species residing in this space. Generally, all of the eggshell is genetically identical. So if we were anticipating that the most significant elephant birds ended up a distinctive species, then we would have seen some genetic variance in the eggshell, but we really don’t see that.

Lichtman: So what describes the XXL bones? A single chance: huge mamas.


Grealy: The very significant elephant birds were ladies, and the a little bit smaller types have been the males, we think.

Lichtman: Mini-er males are not unheard of in birds due to the fact lady birds have to develop eggs, and that takes a large amount out of them, virtually.

Hansford: Birds make eggshells from resources from within their hollow bones. I mentioned that these thigh bones had been 30 centimeters, a foot in circumference. And just one of the good reasons for that is that the females would have saved resources within those in purchase to make the eggs.

Lichtman: But that wasn’t the only “aha” that plopped out of the cracked eggs. Eggshells also notify us a little something about how these huge, strange birds advanced.

It was recognized elephant birds have been ratites—an ancient team of mainly large, flightless birds, which includes emus and cassowaries from Australia, ostriches from Africa, rheas from South The united states and other folks.

Grealy: So basically all people major flightless birds. But they’re really most intently related to the kiwi bird, which is rooster measurement. So that is variety of stunning.

Lichtman: And for a prolonged time, researchers experienced a easy explanation for how these birds landed all more than the globe.

Grealy: For the reason that they are generally flightless and major, it was believed that there was a flightless popular ancestor that was on the supercontinent identified as Gondwana. And as Gondwana broke up, some populations ended up trapped on all those different continents, and then, in excess of time, they ongoing to diverge from each and every other, turning into a lot more various. 

Lichtman: These different lineages—the ostriches, the rheas, the elephant birds—split about when Gondwana did. That was the idea. 

[CLIP: Music]

Lichtman: But the DNA details fouled up this speculation.

DNA proof displays that many of the ratite lineages split effectively after Gondwana broke up. So how did these major flightless birds land all above the planet? 

Grealy: The popular ancestor consequently have to have been quite tiny and traveling to each of the continents independently.

Lichtman: The details counsel the ancestor of these ground-sure, generally big birds was modest and airborne.

Grealy: The fact that they’re mainly flightless and big appears to be form of a coincidence. It appears like flightlessness developed amongst the ratites at least six periods independently, which is really stunning.

Lichtman: Stunning since it indicates each individual of these massive flightless birds—the elephant fowl group included—seemed to consider its individual winding path to flightlessness and bigness. It is a reminder, Alicia says, that in evolutionary historical past, the most basic or most obvious explanation is not usually the correct 1.

Grealy: So, yeah, elephant birds assist improve the way we believe about the evolution of all birds, genuinely.

Lichtman: In our subsequent episode of this four-portion Fascination … 

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan: very compared with a hen that you ordinarily consider of sitting down at a fowl feeder, you know, undoubtedly not that variety of fowl …

Lichtman: We’ll fulfill a different evolutionary curveball of a bird: a thunderous, tanklike goose with the wingspan of a chickadee.

Science, Speedily is made by Jeff DelViscio, Tulika Bose and Kelso Harper. Our concept music was composed by Dominic Smith.

Really don’t forget about to subscribe to Science, Speedily where ever you get your podcasts. Head about to for in-depth science news.

For Science, Swiftly—I’m Flora Lichtman.

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