Gifford Miller and study team

The elephant bird research field team in May 2007 in northeastern Madagascar. From left: Ramil, lead guide from the National Museum in Antananarivo, Gifford Miller, Steve DeVogel and a local guide.

Now that's a big bird!

Research from the University of Colorado Boulder and an Australian university revealed a new lineage of elephant bird that used to roam Madagascar, and could help scientists better understand bird diversity. 

The new study, using research from CU Boulder and Curtin University, published in Nature Communications, describes the discovery of a lineage of elephant bird that used to roam the wet, forested northeastern side of Madagascar.

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Madagascar's wildlife diversity included Aepyornis, a flightless bird standing at over nine feet tall, weighing over 1,500 pounds, and carrying a pointy beak and deadly foot talons, according to the study.

The birds are difficult to study due to limited skeletal remains and the fact that bone DNA degrades quickly in warm, humid areas, according to the study. Ancient eggshell DNA confirms more about diversity within the lineage.

"While we found that there were fewer species living in southern Madagascar at the time of their extinction, we also uncovered novel diversity from Madagascar's far north," lead author Alicia Garcia, who conducted the research for her doctoral thesis at Curtin University, said in the news release. "These findings are an important step forward in understanding the complex history of these enigmatic birds. There's surprisingly a lot to discover from eggshell."

The research was revolutionary to methods of scientific study, being the first time a taxonomic identification has been derived from an elephant bird eggshell, according to the study.

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"It opens up a field that nobody would have thought about before," co-author Gifford Miller, professor of geological sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder, said in the release. "Here may be another way of looking into the past and asking, 'Was there more diversity in birds than we're aware of?'"

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The use of eggshells alone to identify a new lineage of elephant bird will allow scientists to learn more about bird diversity and why so many birds have gone extinct in the past 10,000 years.

The research began when Miller was awarded $25,000 in 2005 as part of the Geological Society of America's Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award. He used that to gather a team to study the elephant bird.

The team used high-resolution satellite imagery to scout places where winds had blown sand to expose ancient eggshells, according to the study. The team traversed the island and gathered more than 960 ancient eggshell fragments from 291 locations.

The physical chemistry of eggshells locks in organic matter for up to 10,000 years, making it difficult to extract for analysis.

Since ancient DNA is often degraded, it is also difficult for scientists to find long enough strands to analyze, meaning they have to piece together shorter fragments. This led them to the discovery of the new type of elephant bird.

"Science often advances in obscure pathways. You don't always find what you were looking for," Miller said. "It's much more interesting to find what you didn't know you were looking for."

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The new research and work in eggshell DNA science could help scientists understand why large animals went extinct after human arrival, according to the study.

"With lots of little contributions from a whole bunch of people, you actually can solve some interesting questions," Miller said. "This might open up a new way of looking at things."

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