Fossilised egg gives clue to fate of ancient birds

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Scientists are hopeful of finding out more about ancient birds and why they died out after extracting DNA from a fossilised elephant bird egg.

An international team of researchers has discovered that DNA is well-preserved in the eggshells of the now extinct creature, which, at half a ton, is the heaviest bird ever to have existed.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology, discovered the eggshells in Madagascar.

The research team now plans to study eggshells from a number of archaeological sites in New Zealand to investigate how humans interacted with another giant bird, the moa, which became extinct 600 years ago due to hunting pressures.

Prof Parker Pearson said: "This mysterious bird was probably the inspiration behind stories in the Thousand And One Nights and as told by Marco Polo.

"It's amazing that we now know so much about its genetic make-up, its diet and its habits. Sadly, it seems to have been yet another casualty of human population growth."

The findings have been published in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Like an outsized ostrich, the elephant bird stood nearly 10ft (3m) tall and its eggs are the largest bird eggs ever known, with a capacity of more than 19 pints (11 litres) - equivalent to 180-240 chicken eggs or seven ostrich eggs.

Most of the birds appear to have died out before 1000 AD.

Doctoral student Charlotte Oskam, who was part of the investigative team at Murdoch University in Western Australia, said: "Researchers have tried unsuccessfully to isolate DNA from fossil eggshell for years - it just turned out that they were using a method designed for bone that was not suitable for fossil eggshell."