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Elephant Birds and Where to Find Them

In his September 2019 letter, Museum Director Mark Auslander ponders the imminent arrival at the Museum of an articulated skeleton of an elephant bird, the largest bird ever known to exist. What lessons about evolution and adaptation might this gargantuan flightless bird help us learn? Why did these birds become extinct? Finally, what name should be selected for this newest member of our Museum team?

MSU Museum’s curator of ornithology Pam Rasmussen holding an elephant bird skull. On the table an elephant bird egg is compared to an ostrich egg.

MSU Museum’s curator of ornithology Pam Rasmussen holding an elephant bird skull. On the table an elephant bird egg is compared to an ostrich egg.

In early September, the MSU Museum will welcome our “newest staff member,” an eight foot six inch high elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus), the largest bird that ever existed. The bird’s articulated skeleton, a high quality osteological reproduction or bone clone, will introduce our visitors to a remarkable extinct organism, estimated to have weighed three times more than an ostrich.

The term “elephant bird” may date back to Marco Polo’s fantastical description of a bird so large that it could carry away elephants in its talons: perhaps actual Aepyornis were glimpsed by travelers and thought to have been mere chicks of a vastly large creature. We do know that they and other species of large flightless running birds (ratites) lived for millions of years on the thousand-mile long island of Madagascar, off the east coast of southern Africa. They probably went extinct around one thousand years ago, after the arrival of human colonists, who primarily travelled across the Indian Ocean from the region of present-day Indonesia. Ornithologists continue to debate how many species of this colossal flightless group of ratites actually existed on Madagascar; current estimates are that there were at least four separate species, and many sub-populations at the northern and southern tips of the island.

Evolutionary Puzzles

One of the first questions we expect from visitors is why did flightless birds ever evolve, given the seemingly self-evident advantages of flight, which allows most bird species to traverse vast ranges and increase their ability to escape predators. A hint is given by the fact that most flightless birds are found on islands; presumably, the relative absence of predators created an evolutionary opportunity for the emergence of flightlessness. Our ornithologist Pam Rasmussen explains that flying is a high energy-expending activity and that under relatively isolated conditions, we often can trace through the fossil record bird lineages gradually losing the ability to fly, with the flattening of the breastbone or sternum that in most bird species anchors the muscles needed to flap wings; in turn, wings became increasingly vestigial, thereby greatly reducing energy needs. There are around sixty living species of flightless birds on the planet, including penguins and the group of birds known as “ratites,” among which include the cassowaries, emus, and ostriches.

We may in time exhibit the elephant bird next to our specimen of the vastly smaller kiwi (around the size of a chicken), from New Zealand. Recent genetic research indicates that the kiwi is the elephant bird’s closest relative. The current thinking is that these populations emerged thousands of miles apart from one another long after the breakup of the southern hemisphere super continent Gondwana. They must have had a common flighted ancestor, tens of millions of years ago, capable of traversing the great expanses of the Indian Ocean. Each isolated group became flightless over great periods of time through what is known as “convergent evolution,” the independent evolution of similar characteristics in different lineages that have similar lifestyles and occupy similar ecological niches.

To be sure, convergent evolution doesn’t create carbon copies of scattered organisms: conditions on Madagascar evidently favored the evolution of extremely large birds, while in New Zealand both the large moas and the much smaller kiwis were able to achieve reproductive success. Kiwis live primarily in underground burrows, while elephant birds presumably covered large territories, moving above ground. Yet both elephant birds and kiwis have reduced optic lobes, suggesting that like kiwis, elephant birds may have been primarily nocturnal, mainly moving around at night.

Elephant bird skeleton from Bone Clones, Inc.

Elephant bird skeleton from Bone Clones, Inc.

Extinction is Forever

We are not entirely sure why elephant birds went extinct on Madagascar. As in many parts for the world, the historical arrival of human groups is roughly correlated with the loss of “megafauna” or large animals, but this doesn’t tell us the precise cause of extinction events. It may be that over-hunting or unsustainable egg collection by people was to blame. Species that emerged without serious predators or competition may simply have lacked the instinct to flee newly arrived human hunters and gatherers. It may be that human-introduced domestic birds brought with them infectious diseases that devastated indigenous species. Or perhaps humans contributed to critical habitat loss, leading to population collapse. Alternately, there may have been contributing environmental and climate shifts that were not directly due to human agency. Or all of these factors may have contributed to extinction.

In turn, what impact did the loss of elephant birds have on living systems in southern and northern Madagascar, where these creatures once roamed? These large animals must have consumed large amounts of biomass and spread seeds through defecation: what happened to other plant and animal species once they disappeared from the scene?

Mindful of these questions, we hope to use the towering elephant bird skeleton to engage our visitors of all ages in thoughtful discussions about conservation and extinction. What are our ethical responsibilities to other species? How can we contribute to the maintenance of diverse ecosystems and habitats around the world? The current specter of mass wildfires in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most biodiverse zones, threatens the annihilation of countless animal and plant species, many of which remain undiscovered or understudied. The loss of the Amazonian canopy, which produces a significant percentage of the world’s oxygen supply, may hasten global climate change, posing challenges to the web of life everywhere on the planet.

Madagascar itself is home to a dazzling array of plant and animal species, which emerged in relative isolation from other regions. For decades there have been large scale efforts to encourage conservation efforts on the island; some of these have been ill fated, failing to take into account the needs and motivations of local human communities, who are often deeply impoverished and vulnerable. We hope our elephant bird will inspire conversations with our visitors and stakeholders about ways to integrate conservation, social justice, and sustainable community development, on Madagascar and everywhere else.

What’s in a Name?

The ancient Malagasy term for elephant bird appears to have been “Vorombe.” We are wondering what we should term our elephant bird once “they” arrives. (Because we can’t tell from the skeleton the sex of this specimen, we are inclined to use a gender-neutral pronoun in this instance!) Playfully, we are planning on having a naming contest for the new arrival. Please send your suggested names to museum@msu.edu and we will put the question to a vote by all our visitors: everyone will have a chance to vote on the final list of names, by giving a modest donation at the front desk. (Donations support the planned elephant bird exhibition upstairs, to open in 2021.) In the meantime, we expect the skeleton will tower behind the front desk, as they wait for the new name.

As a sociocultural anthropologist, I am intrigued by why we feel such a need to name nature’s beings. Naming practices vary dramatically across human cultures, yet all human societies engage in naming plants and animals, and these names often reveal subtle and sophisticated lines of thought about the similarities and differences between organisms, and about human nature itself. It was long thought that naming plants and animals was a convenient way of keeping track, in small scale human societies, of species that were useful to human survival. Yet the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss points out that many cultures engage in naming hundreds or even thousands of flora and fauna that have no biological or economic utility, although they may play important roles in mythology or ritual performance. As Levi- Strauss puts it, in his inimitable, paradoxical fashion, “plants and animals are not known because they are useful; they are useful because they are known.” He also suggests that the human mind is endlessly drawn to classifying natural organisms and that these classification systems are fundamental to the operations of the human mind, especially in pondering the enigmatic dynamics of self and other in the context of society. In his oft-repeated phrase, animals and plants are not just good to eat; they are “good to think.”

So what precisely will we find “good to think,” as we debate names for our new elephant bird? The name “Jumbo” would evoke the well-known, if rather tragic, story of the African bull elephant whose mother was killed by hunters in 1860 in Sudan, and who was subsequently exhibited in Paris, London, and then in America by P.T. Barnum, before being senselessly killed by a moving train. “Big Bird” would summon up happier memories of the benevolent Sesame Street costumed character so beloved by generations of children, (Alas, trademark restrictions preclude us adopting that particular name.)

Whatever name is ultimately chosen, the urge to name is testament to our deep-seated human intuition that we hold kinship with representatives of the non-human world. This sense of relatedness and connection though naming can extend to animals, plants, landscape features on earth or in space, and human made artifacts. Even the R.R.S. “Boaty McBoatface,” the oft-ridiculed British crowd-sourced name for a prominent research ship, betrays a desire to project the most deeply human characteristic, the face itself, onto a non-human entity, and in so doing, to make it part of our human family.

Retaining Wonder

Artists’ rendition of an elephant bird By Alannis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14915708

Artists’ rendition of an elephant bird By Alannis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14915708

As humans we are inevitably fixated on paradox and contradiction, on phenomena that don’t quite fit into our pre-existing structures of thought. (Hence perhaps our particular fascination with gargantuan flightless birds, a seeming contradiction in terms.) At the same time, the moment we encounter something that violates our conventional conceptual categories, we seek to re-encompass it within familiar habits of thought, including by naming it. Museums themselves are monuments to this paradoxical double desire: we seek to apprehend all that which is emphatically not us (not of our culture, not of our species, not of our world) while simultaneously trying to grasp that which connects us to alternate forms of existence. In striving to comprehend others, from distant places and far off times, we come to better understand ourselves, to ponder what we have been and what we might become.

As we name the elephant bird, our cherished ambassador from a distant island and a long lost epoch, we hope to welcome them into our extended family here at the Museum, into a community dedicated to boundless curiosity about the universe and our place within it. The replicated bones of this grand skeleton are, strictly speaking, inanimate. Yet museums are places that almost magically bring back long lost things to life, and we look forward to re-animating the Elephant Bird, and in turn being rejuvenated ourselves, in the presence of this magnificent creature.

Finally, we are delighted that the elephant bird’s arrival (and associated naming contest) heralds the coming to the Museum of our long-awaited core attraction, the MSU Federal Credit Union “Science On a Sphere,” to be unveiled on Wednesday, November 13 at 5:30 pm in our new gallery on the first floor. The system will allow our students and faculty to author breathtaking animated visualizations of natural and social phenomena, speeding across a rotating globe in living color. With any luck, our students and curators will dream up immersive three-dimensional renditions of how elephant birds and kiwi evolved on islands far apart from one another, along evolutionary pathways that were both convergent and unique. Others may choose to illustrate in three dimensions the Tales of Sinbad and the mythical flying roc, plucking elephants into the air, or map out exciting conservation and species recovery programs now being developed by MSU researchers and students all across our imperiled planet. The elephant bird will tower over all us, a powerful reminder of the beautiful fragility of life, and of our boundless capacity for wonder in the face of an ever-mysterious and still-entrancing world.

Remember, please send your suggested name for the elephant bird to museum@msu.edu. And be sure to stop by the Museum in October to cast your vote for the best name!