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article imageMuseum has been sitting on real elephant bird egg since 1939

By Karen Graham     Apr 25, 2018 in Science
Buffalo - The Buffalo Museum of Science in New York has been sitting on a very rare find. A collections manager with the museum discovered an elephant bird egg nestled away in a cabinet for more than half a century and erroneously labeled as a replica, or cast.
The elephant bird egg is in perfect condition - being intact with no cracks at all. Like a chicken egg, it is oval and cream-colored. But that is probably where the similarities stop. Size-wise, the giant egg measures 12 inches long, 28 inches in circumference and weighed more than three pounds. It was also labeled as a model.
As with many museums, the Buffalo museum has been accruing its collection for more than a century and was in the process of updating its catalog, inputting the information into the museum's computer system. Some of the data is still on index cards or in ledgers.
Paige Langle, the collections manager of zoology, opened a cabinet that hadn’t been looked in for quite some time. Imagine her surprise when she discovered a very large egg. "When I saw the egg, it was so much bigger than any other eggs in our collection," Langle told the Buffalo News.
Kathryn Leacock  director of collections at the Buffalo Museum of Science  carefully holds the giant...
Kathryn Leacock, director of collections at the Buffalo Museum of Science, carefully holds the giant elephant bird egg.
Buffalo Museum of Science
The museum has over 1,000 eggs in its vast collection that contains over 700,000 items. Most of the items are stored in the building's repository. "It had so much detail and pitting, and the color was beautiful. It looked too realistic to be a model," she said.
Langle did find a model of an elephant bird egg later on the same day, and she noticed right away it was a model. "When I went back and looked at the first egg, I just thought, 'This has to be real,' " Langle said.
The SUNY Buffalo State's art conservation department was contacted and after carefully wrapping the giant egg in foam, it was taken to be radiographed and authenticated. Jiuan Jiuan Chen, the department's professor of conservation imaging, used radiography on the egg. The imaging technique uses a beam of X-rays to see inside.
They found out that not only is the egg real, but it had been fertilized. The researchers could make out the yolk sac and, "white fragments” that may point to the beginnings of a developing bird, said Kathryn Leacock, the museum’s director of collections. "It's the biggest egg laid by any vertebrate ever," said Leacock.
Ready for a trip to be X-rayed.
Ready for a trip to be X-rayed.
Buffalo Museum of Science
Egg was bought from a London taxidermist
To fully document the rare find, the museum staff delved into the archives and found records indicating that the museum had "purchased a sub-fossilized elephant bird egg from Edward Gerrard & Sons, a London purveyor of taxidermy specimens in 1939," according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Museum staff also found a list put together by the curator at that time, listing a number of specimens he wanted to acquire for an exhibit on birds. One of the specimens he was looking for was an elephant bird egg.
“From what we could tell, he mailed this list to all kinds of dealers all over the world, several of them in London," said Leacock. “A couple of them wrote back and said, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to get one of those. They’re kind of expensive.’ Fortunately, he didn’t let that deter him.”
An Aepyornis (elephant bird) skull
An Aepyornis (elephant bird) skull
LadyofHats
The museum found out from archival records that the curator paid $92 for the egg - which in 1939 was quite a bit of money. The London taxidermist purchased the egg on the island of Madagascar, where the birds lived in a tropical rainforest until they went extinct in the 17th century.
The Buffalo museum counts itself as being very fortunate to have such a pristine specimen. Of the 40 or so elephant bird eggs held in institutions around the world, only a handful are complete. The National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., has an intact sub-fossilized elephant bird egg, and inside is an embryonic skeleton. But most institutions just have fragments of shells.
The magnificent elephant bird
Elephant birds are members of the extinct family Aepyornithidae. They were large, to very large flightless birds that once lived on the island of Madagascar. There were two genera of the birds - Mullerornis and Aepyornis. Aepyornis was among the heaviest of birds, growing to a height of 10 feet and weighing as much as 1,100 pounds.
Various ratite skeletons  including (starting from the right  going left) elephant bird  giant north...
Various ratite skeletons, including (starting from the right, going left) elephant bird, giant northern island giant moa, ostrich, rhea, heavy-footed moa, cassowary, broad-billed moa, upland moa and bush moa - ending with a human.
Monnier, Drow male, Ryan Somma, Roger Fenton, [1], Goupil & Cie and Samuel Glendening Payne
There are several theories as to why the giant birds went extinct, from human poaching of the eggs to climate changes. But the most likely reason for the birds going extinct is simply human predation.
The elephant bird egg at the Buffalo Museum of Science has not been on display since the 1940s or 50s, Leacock says. The staff plans to feature the relic in an exhibition titled “Rethink Extinct,” which explores major episodes of extinction, from the age of the dinosaur to the present day.
“It’s super, super cool to have this [egg] in Buffalo, and hope the community will be proud that we are one of a very, very few museums that have this as our cultural heritage,” Leacock says. “We’re just very excited.”
The Buffalo Museum of Science is located at 1020 Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo N.Y. Visitors will be able to view the elephant bird egg at the museum's "Rethink Extinct" exhibit, starting on May 1.
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