Extinct bird's big ol' egg discovered in museum storage

An extinct bird's egg was found in storage at a New York museum this week, having been mistaken for a cast for decades. The creature that laid this egg was the Elephant Bird – aka Aepyornis maximus. "It's the biggest egg laid by any vertebrate ever," said Kathryn Leacock, Buffalo Museum of Science director of collections. It is indeed the biggest egg ever laid – it beats the previous record holder by just a TINY bit.*

The Discovery

Paige Langle, collections manager of zoology at the Buffalo Museum of Science spoke with the Buffalo News about her re-discovery of the egg. She suggested she found the egg in a cabinet where it was mis-labeled as a cast.

"When I saw the egg, it was so much bigger than any other eggs in our collection," said Langle. "It had so much detailing and pitting, and the color was beautiful. It looked too realistic to be a model."

BELOW: The Buffalo Museum of Science shared a radiograph (x-ray) of the egg. The faint white dots in the lower right portion of the x-ray of the egg indicate potential early fertilization of the long-extinct life within.

Langle spoke with the SUNY Buffalo State's art conservation department to investigate further. The department's professor of conservation imaging Jiuan Jiuan Chen, used radiography to identify the contents of the egg (if any were to be found at all, that is). X-ray beams turned up exactly what Leacock suspected – real egg innards.

This wasn't like Game of Thrones were ancient dragon eggs can magically hatch after extended periods of time. Instead, the contents of this newly discovered elephant bird egg showed signs of fertilization, but no full bird. Still, the find is exceedingly important – and very rare. Just 40 or fewer of these eggs are known to exist in the world, and fewer are fully intact.

The Source

Further investigation turned up records of the acquisition of the egg by the Buffalo Museum of Science. According to these records, the egg was acquired in the year 1939 from a taxidermist called "Edward Gerrard & Sons of London" for $92 USD. Accounting for inflation, that'd be around $1,651 USD today (and still a fairly good deal given what you're about to read in the final section of this article!)

Edward Gerrard & Sons reportedly acquired the egg on the island of Madagascar at some point before they sold to the Buffalo Museum of Science in 1939. Radiocarbon dating of previously discovered elephant bird egg suggest the species went extinct at around 1000 CE (1000 BP).

Extinction of the elephant bird occurred approximately 1018 years before today. That would mean that the egg would have been sitting in safety somewhere for close to 939 years before it started trading hands on its way to the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Big giant egg journey timeline:

• 1000 CE: Elephant bird goes extinct.

• 19?? CE: Edward Gerrard & Sons purchases 900+ year old egg in Madagascar.

• 1939 CE: Buffalo Museum of Science purchases egg from Edward Gerrard & Sons.

• ???? CE: Egg is mis-labeled as an artificial cast, placed in storage for decades.

• 2018 CE: Egg is re-discovered in storage, identified by Paige Langle, collections manager of zoology at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Radiocarbon dating info comes from "Hunting of wild animals by Sakalava of the Menabe region: a field report from Kirindy-Mite". Authored by SM Goodman, A Raselimanana – Lemur News, 2003. See further citations at ResearchGate.

*Another Egg

The second-largest egg on record (from any species of vertebrate, ever), was sold by Christie's back in 2013. That egg was also from an elephant bird from Madagascar. That egg rang in just a TINY bit smaller around the middle than the egg discovered at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

• Buffalo's: height: 1-foot, circumference: 28-inch, weight: 3 pounds and 5 ounces

• Christie's: height: 1-foot, circumference: 27.4889-inch , weight: n/a

The Christie's egg can be found at Christie's archives from the 24th of April 2013. It was sale 8668, if you'd like to know, lot 45, and it was sold for a cool GBP £66,675 (that's around $90,519).

The Guinness Book of World Records has an entry for Largest Egg from a Bird – that's also the Elephant Bird in general at what they say is 13-inches long. They don't say so in the entry title, but they do mention in the text: "Its eggs were the largest ever single cell to have existed on Earth."

The Buffalo Museum of Science announced they'd display the elephant bird egg at an exhibit by the name Rethink Extinct scheduled to start May 1st, 2018.

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