Ex Profundis

“Tis the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

The most perfect thing in nature, arguably, is the egg. A living capsule: it is the complete nursery, foodstore, protector and temporary home. From the tiniest hummingbird to the largest crocodile, the perfection of the egg gives them all a headstart.

Eggs and extinction have a long history together. The 75 or so eggs of the great auk (Pinguinis impennis) changed hands for enormous sums in the 19th century, increasing in investment value as the last living individuals were harried to extinction in Iceland. The auk eggs’ Jackson Pollock camouflage and unique patterning lend them a melancholy beauty noticeable to even the most casual observer. The Victorian mania for oology just one of the many factors that helped to push this species over the edge. Thankfully egg-collecting is a dying hobby; its adherents having decimated some of Britain’s rarest species in their obsession.* UK osprey and eagle nests still need the protection of dedicated wardens to thwart the occasional nest-raider. Eggs attract obsessives, drawn to their perfection. Eggs have stories to tell.

Cervantes is a small town about 100 miles north of Perth in Western Australia. In 1992, three primary school students found an enormous egg (32cm long!) in some dunes beside the beach. Instantly intrigued, the case received much redtop press. Could it have been an example of the Dromornithids, a.k.a. the Demon Ducks of Doom? Perhaps the Pleistocene giant Genyornis newtoni? Or from the Miocene giant Dromornis stirtoni? Both of these extinct Australian birds laid large eggs, with fossil eggshells of Genyornis contributing data on the timing of the Pleistocene extinction in Australia.

Alas, it appeared clear that the Cervantes egg was not from either of these ancient giants. The dune system the egg was found in was Holocene in age (i.e. from the last 10,000 years) and radiocarbon dating showed that the egg was a very young 1,928±73 years old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century AD. Long after any giant Australian birds were around (except the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae, which lays big eggs, but nowhere near as giant as the Cervantes egg). Close inspection of the outer structure of the egg, and its dimensions, told a much stranger tale. This egg was from Aepyornis maximus, the Madagascan elephant bird.

Velizar Simeonovski’s wonderful reconstruction of communal nesting in Aepyornis, from the book Extinct Madagascar.

Madagascan beaches are still full of elephant bird eggshell as this recent picture shows. Image © James Haile

Regular readers will know that the largest egg, nay the largest single cell, ever to evolve is that of the extinct Madagascan elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus, I refrain from using the shiny new taxon of Vorombe titan, until more data is forthcoming). The eggs of Aepyornis command high levels of devotion. Used as water carriers by native Malagasy people prior to contact (they can carry up to ten litres!), Western scientists have long coveted them. While Madagascan beaches are still littered with the eggshell from successful hatcheries, complete eggs are much rarer. Around 80 are found in museum collections worldwide. Another 30 or so are thought to be in private collection. Sir David Attenborough famously has one, gifted to him when filming Zoo Quest, and radiocarbon dated a few years back. Although it is now rightly illegal to export complete elephant bird eggs from Madagascar there are quite a few of these relics still circulating in the global antiquities market. Not to mention the steady trade in “reconstructed” eggs, made from piecing together any old bits of Aepyornis eggshell until a facsimile of a whole egg is produced. Complete and intact eggs can fetch enormous prices. $205,000 was paid for one intact egg in 2014. Two centuries of brisk trade has meant that Aepyornis eggs can be found in nearly all the major museums of the world.

So, the Cervantes egg was from a Madagascan elephant bird. How on earth did it end up in Western Australia?

Remarkably, it’s not the only example of long-distance egg travel to this part of WA. Another Aepyornis egg was found in the Scott River south of Perth in 1930, near the town of Augusta. The intact, buoyant, rugby-ball-sized floaters must have ridden the predominantly West to East South Indian Ocean currents the 5,000 miles from Madagascar to Australia. Distinctive King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) eggs have made a similar crossing from the Kerguelen islands to Augusta, showing that the route is something of a conveyor belt**. The Cervantes and Scott River eggs remind me of that hoary old tale by H. G. Wells, “Aepyornis island”. In the story, a specimen collector finds three intact elephant bird eggs, and through a series of misadventures floats away from Madagascar and onto a deserted island. On the island, one of the eggs hatches and the Aepyornis chick becomes the collectors companion for a time. Perhaps someone should check on the Cervantes and Scott River eggs. Just in case.

The Scott River egg in 1930. Photo by Douglas Elford, WA Museum.

How the southern Indian Ocean currents could have swept eggs from Madagascar and the Kerguelen islands to Western Australia.

*In the UK it is illegal to collect wild bird eggs, and illegal to hold any wild birds eggs collected on or after 1954. For more information, see RSPB.

**If nothing else these enormous sea crossings should show that taphonomy, the study of how fossil sites have formed can be incredibly complex.

Written by: Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Burney, D. A., L. P. Burney, L. R. Godfrey, W. L. Jungers, S. M. Goodman, H. T. Wright, and A. J. Jull. “A Chronology for Late Prehistoric Madagascar.” J Hum Evol 47, no. 1-2 (Jul-Aug 2004): 25-63. [Abstract]

Long, J. A., P. Vickers-Rich, K. KHirsch, E. Bray, and C. Tuniz. “The Cervantes Egg: An Early Malagasy Tourist to Australia.” Records of the Western Australian Museum 19 (1998): 39-46.[Full Text]

Miller, G. H., J. W. Magee, B. J. Johnson, M. L. Fogel, N. A. Spooner, M. T. McCulloch, and L. K. Ayliffe. “Pleistocene Extinction of Genyornis Newtoni: Human Impact on Australian Megafauna.” Science 283 (1999): 205-08. [Full Text]

Schläpfer, K. “Aepyornis Eggs: History, Characteristics and Market.” (2015).[Full Text]

Wells, H. G. “Aepyornis Island” 1894 [Full Text]

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