Elephant birds were blind, nocturnal and taller than Big Bird

You may have thought Big Bird was unrealistically gigantic, but he's still not the largest bird to ever walk...

Posted: Oct 31, 2018 8:48 AM
Updated: Oct 31, 2018 8:48 AM

You may have thought Big Bird was unrealistically gigantic, but he's still not the largest bird to ever walk the Earth. That honor goes to elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and roamed Madagascar thousands of years ago.

For reference, "Sesame Street's" Big Bird stands at 8 feet, 2 inches.

Animals

Birds

Life forms

Elephants

Mammals

New research suggests that the giant flightless birds, which went extinct between 500 and 1,000 years ago, were also nocturnal and blind. An analysis of two elephant bird skulls from two species was published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"As recently as 500 years ago, very nearly blind, giant flightless birds were crashing around the forests of Madagascar in the dark. No one ever expected that," said Julia Clarke, study co-author and professor at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences.

It had been believed that these birds were similar to emus and ostriches; they're also big, flightless birds, but they're active during the day and have good eyesight. But this new research sheds light on elephant birds as being closer in relation to kiwis -- also nocturnal with poor vision. Kiwis, which are about the size of chickens, live in New Zealand.

Because bird skulls fit tightly around their brains, the shape of the skull correlates to the structures of the brain. Brain reconstruction research in elephant birds revealed that their optic lobes, the nerves that control eyesight, were incredibly small and almost absent. This is very similar to the kiwi.

"Certainly, the most surprising was just how small the elephant bird's optic lobes were," said Christopher Torres, study co-author and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. "The few studies that speculated on what their behavior was like explicitly assumed they were active during the day. Then, once we made the connection to nocturnality, we were blown away. It meant revising more than century's worth of attempts at reconstructing the elephant bird lifestyle."

So how did elephant birds become nocturnal?

"A nocturnal lifestyle is often an evolutionary response either when it's too dangerous to come out during the day or when what you eat comes out at night," Torres said.

But elephant birds had no known predators and were plant-eaters.

In this case, nocturnality is probably an inherited trait from the ancestor shared by elephant birds and kiwis. And sometimes, competition between species can cause extremes in evolution.

The researchers recognized a pattern in which these birds undergo a nocturnal phase, caused by a sensitivity to light, that allows them to see in low-light conditions, Torres said. In flightless birds, their visuals are reduced, and they rely on other senses.

They also looked at the larger group of birds including ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, kiwi, moa and tinamous, in which a relationship between the development of the sense of smell and habitat preference formed.

"Species in this group that live in forests seem to rely on a well-developed sense of smell to help them forage in conditions where visual cues might be obstructed," Torres said.

The next mystery concerns why elephant birds went extinct, and it remains unsolved. But scientists have clues pointing to hunting and habitat destruction by humans, as well as climate change.

At the time, Madagascar's climate was still changing, and humans hadn't reached the point where they could affect global climate change.

"Recent studies have suggested that elephant birds outlived initial contact with humans by many thousands of years based on toolmarks observed on radiometricly dated remains," Torres said.

And knowing that elephant birds were nocturnal also helps explain why they were able to coexist with humans for so long. Other birds were not so lucky. The moa, nine species of flightless birds, were apparently gone within a handful of centuries after humans made it to New Zealand, he said.

Going forward, Torres wants to take a deeper look at the strange evolutionary stories of creatures like elephant birds.

"Studying brain shape is a really useful way of connecting ecology -- the relationship between the bird and the environment -- and anatomy," Torres said. "Discoveries like these give us tremendous insights into the lives of these bizarre and poorly understood birds."

Huntsville
Broken Clouds
66° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 66°
Florence
Broken Clouds
67° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 67°
Fayetteville
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 72°
Decatur
Overcast
66° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 66°
Scottsboro
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 73°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 16310

Reported Deaths: 590
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2085112
Jefferson167397
Montgomery144634
Marshall6609
Tuscaloosa63212
Lee52632
Franklin4986
Shelby47019
Tallapoosa41063
Butler39113
Chambers34024
Madison3154
Elmore3007
Baldwin2829
Walker2821
DeKalb2403
Etowah24011
Dallas2323
Coffee2191
Lowndes21610
Morgan2111
Sumter2106
Autauga1923
Houston1854
Bullock1763
Pike1730
Colbert1612
Calhoun1523
Marengo1506
Choctaw1487
Russell1480
Lauderdale1452
Hale1416
Wilcox1327
Barbour1301
Clarke1282
Randolph1247
Marion11711
St. Clair1081
Pickens964
Dale960
Talladega963
Chilton931
Greene914
Cullman880
Limestone860
Winston770
Covington751
Jackson742
Bibb711
Henry702
Macon672
Crenshaw662
Washington656
Blount531
Escambia483
Lawrence460
Geneva400
Perry360
Conecuh351
Coosa341
Monroe342
Cherokee332
Clay272
Lamar210
Cleburne131
Fayette130
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 21285

Reported Deaths: 353
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Davidson482660
Shelby4615105
Trousdale13924
Rutherford109022
Sumner84345
Hamilton67015
Bledsoe6081
Williamson53210
Tipton4283
Putnam4285
Robertson4262
Lake4130
Wilson3828
Knox3565
Out of TN3394
Bedford2704
Montgomery2583
Rhea1970
Hardeman1920
Madison1742
Loudon1370
McMinn13614
Macon1193
Cheatham1140
Cumberland1111
Fayette1102
Dickson1070
Bradley1051
Blount893
Maury810
Washington750
Unassigned750
Sevier752
Coffee660
Wayne630
Gibson601
Sullivan602
Monroe592
Lauderdale561
Hickman540
Dyer490
Franklin491
Greene482
Anderson401
Marion371
DeKalb370
Grundy321
Hawkins312
Smith301
Hamblen302
Haywood302
Henry300
Marshall291
Jefferson280
Obion281
White280
Carroll271
Weakley260
Overton250
Meigs250
Lincoln250
Lawrence240
Warren220
Cocke200
Carter191
Morgan170
Campbell171
Cannon170
Jackson170
Crockett161
Roane160
Johnson150
Polk150
Henderson140
Humphreys131
Chester130
Perry130
Sequatchie130
Giles120
McNairy120
Fentress120
Hardin112
Scott110
Stewart100
Claiborne80
Houston80
Benton71
Grainger60
Clay60
Decatur50
Union40
Van Buren40
Lewis30
Moore30
Unicoi30
Pickett30
Hancock10

 

 

Community Events