Elephant bird egg discovered in museum

Rare specimen belonging to giant extinct species – which was previously thought to be fake – found in cabinet by curators cataloguing collection

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 25 April 2018 16:07 BST
Elephant bird egg thought to be replica discovered in New York museum

One of the largest eggs ever known has been discovered hidden in the back of an American museum.

While cataloguing their collection, curators at the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York stumbled across a gigantic egg hidden in a cabinet.

Weighing 1.4kg and with a length of around 30cm, the piece was labelled as a replica of an elephant bird egg – but a reappraisal has revealed it is in fact the genuine specimen.

As their name suggests, elephant birds were enormous, with the largest individuals reaching three metres in height and weighing up to 500kg.

Related to other modern flightless birds like ostriches and emus, the elephant bird lived on the island of Madagascar until it became extinct around the 17th century.

Their eggs had a volume equivalent to around 150 chicken eggs, and were the largest ever recorded.

It is generally thought that humans drove the birds to extinction through a combination of hunting and egg theft.

When Paige Langle, the museum’s collections manager of zoology, laid eyes on the “model” egg, she immediately felt it “too realistic”.

“I tried to shrug it off, but the more closely I looked at the surface of the eggshell and felt the weight of the egg, the more I kept thinking this has to be real,” she told Smithsonian.com.

After searching through the rest of the collection, Ms Langle’s suspicion was confirmed when she found the actual replica egg, along with records indicating the museum had indeed purchased a real elephant bird egg in 1939.

Staff also found a letter written by the museum’s old curator, indicating he wanted to acquire just such an egg.

To make absolutely sure, the curators sent their egg to scientists at the State University College at Buffalo.

They radiographed the specimen and confirmed that not only was it authentic, it had actually been fertilised and contained fragments that could be all that was left of a developing chick.

The discovery is notable as fewer than 40 elephant bird eggs exist in public institutions around the world.

Having established the egg’s true nature, the museum curators intend to put it on display for the first time since the 1950s.

In a 2011 documentary, Sir David Attenborough visited Madagascar to learn about the elephant birds – a species that had fascinated him since he was presented with some massive shards of egg when he visited the island in 1960.

The veteran natural history presenter explained the role that humans had in the birds’ downfall, and warned that many animals today are likely to meet the same fate.

Other giant flightless birds such as the moa of New Zealand are also known to have been driven to extinction as a result of human activity.

Research by Dr Kristina Guild Douglass while she was a graduate student at Yale University suggested that besides elephant bird egg-poaching by humans, a changing climate on Madagascar also likely played a role in the decline of the species.

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