Who Killed The Elephant Bird?

Sep 24, 2018 By Arbaaz M, Writer Intern
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The elephant bird was a 3 meter tall, half ton mammoth of a bird that was a frequent sight on the island of Madagascar.  Its eggs were almost as large as it was, even larger than dinosaur eggs.

Sadly, the elephant bird went extinct about 1,000 years ago. This was thanks to humans that arrived 2,500 to 4,000 years ago and hunted it to extinction. Or did we?

A Unique Island

Madagascar is a small island off of the eastern coast of Africa. Despite the island’s small size, its biodiversity is anything but.

Initially, a part of the African coast, the island of Madagascar began to drift apart 150 million years ago. Since then, its isolation has produced a wide variety of native species, from leaping lemurs to colorful chameleons to fascinating flora like the baobab tree. But surprisingly, many of the typical animal species are hard-pressed to find.

Large animals that are commonly found in Africa (particularly large mammals like antelopes and zebras) are nowhere to be seen, mostly due to the same isolation that makes Madagascar so diverse. 

Humans arrived on the island around 2000 years ago. Since then many large species of lemurs, huge tortoises, giant raptors and pygmy hippopotamuses have gone extinct. The island was also home to the largest flightless bird, the Elephant Bird, which is closely related to the small kiwi of New Zealand? Read our earlier article here

Who Killed The Elephant Bird?

Researchers have speculated that we humans hunted the birds for food or ate their eggs. But how much of a role did humans really play in the decline of the elephant bird? A new study raises more questions.

Bones of elephant birds found in 2008 were found to have grooves. Scientists realized that these grooves were cut marks made by human tools. This seems to agree with the established theory about how elephant birds went extinct. Except for the fact that these bones are 10,000 years old. This means that humans found Madagascar much earlier than previously believed. It also means that humans and elephant birds coexisted for almost 9,000 years.

With this newfound evidence, the theory that appeared to be so dependable for decades has been overturned. These newfound bones have shown that human hunting wasn’t the primary cause for the elephant birds going extinct. Climate change is also out of the question, since Madagascar faced its driest period 4,500 years ago, well before the extinction. There are as many new reasons now as there are Madagascar’s species --  ranging from human farming habits to habitat destruction to something entirely new. The overhunting theory has effectively become extinct.

The cause of the elephant birds’ extinction has turned into a question once again, waiting to be answered.

Sources: BBC, LiveScience, PBS