New Story, Same Big Old Bird

An elephant bird lol
Illustration: DFoidl (Wikimedia Commons)

Madagascar’s history contains some truly enormous animals, from giant lemurs to giant tortoises. The island was also home to 10-foot-tall flightless birds, which sadly disappeared hundreds of years ago. But how we humans classified those birds was, well, a mess.

There seemed to be 15 species of elephant birds before this most recent study, but there wasn’t much consideration of how bone sizes might vary between species, nor were there standardized comparisons based on sizes. It’s as if every time some 19th-century explorer came back from Madagascar, he decided he’d found a new species without doing (or having the ability to do) the background science. This has long led to confusion about the taxonomy of these birds. Scientists hoping to figure things out performed a new analysis and ended up with just four species—including a new name for the very largest of the elephant birds.