Vorombe titan: Researchers Name World’s Largest Ever Bird
After decades of conflicting evidence and numerous publications, a team of researchers at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology has finally put the ‘world’s largest bird’ debate to rest.
These enormous, flightless birds were rarities, like the ostrich, rhea, emu, cassowary and kiwi.
They lived on the island of Madagascar during the Late Quaternary and went extinct somewhere around the 13th to 17th centuries.
In 1894, British scientist C.W. Andrews described an even larger species, Aepyornis titan, which has usually been dismissed as an unusually large specimen of Aepyornis maximus.
However, the new study, led by James Hansford, reveals Aepyornis titan was indeed a distinct species.
Now named Vorombe titan (meaning ‘big bird’ in Malagasy and Greek), the species had a body mass of 800 kg and grew up to 10 feet (3 m) tall.
“Elephant birds were the biggest of Madagascar’s megafauna and arguably one of the most important in the islands evolutionary history — even more so than lemurs,” Hansford said.
“This is because large-bodied animals have an enormous impact on the wider ecosystem they live in via controlling vegetation through eating plants, spreading biomass and dispersing seeds through defecation.”
“Madagascar is still suffering the effects of the extinction of these birds today.”
In the study, Hansford and his colleague, Professor Samuel Turvey, analyzed hundreds of elephant bird bones from museums across the globe to uncover the world’s largest bird, while also revealing their taxonomy is in fact spread across three genera and at least four distinct species; thus, constituting the first taxonomic reassessment of the family in over 80 years.
“Without an accurate understanding of past species diversity, we can’t properly understand evolution or ecology in unique island systems such as Madagascar or reconstruct exactly what’s been lost since human arrival on these islands,” Professor Turvey said.
“Knowing the history of biodiversity loss is essential to determine how to conserve today’s threatened species.”
The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
James P. Hansford & Samuel T. Turvey. 2018. Unexpected diversity within the extinct elephant birds (Aves: Aepyornithidae) and a new identity for the world’s largest bird. R. Soc. open sci 5: 81295; doi: 10.1098/rsos.181295