During the Christmas holidays in 1992, three primary school children in Western Australia came across a giant, fossilized egg in the sand dunes at Cervantes Beach.
Jamie Andrich aged nine and his cousins Kelly (9) and Michelle Rew (7) had no idea of the importance of their find. I love the fact that when school went back, one of the kids took it along to a class ‘show and tell’. It was only some time later that the egg was taken along to palaeontologists at the Western Australian Museum by Jamie Andrich and his father, Darryl. It was identified as being from Aepyornis titan, a long extinct, flightless bird; possibly the world’s largest.
The egg had floated 6,000 kilometres from Madagasca over a thousand years before the birds actually died out. It appears they were still around in the 13th century, when the explorer Marco Polo described them in his diary as being; ‘so large and strong as to seize an elephant with its talons, and to lift it into the air, in order to drop it to the ground and in this way kill it.’ This account was a bit exaggerated, but Marco Polo had provided Aepyornis titan with its common name; Elephant Bird
Plans were made to auction the egg, with huge sums being bandied about. Jamie and his cousins must have been dreaming of a trip to Disneyland and every toy they ever wanted. However, almost immediately there were questions about ownership. Eventually it was judged to have been found on crown land, and therefore the legal property of the government. Museum staff were very relieved. Private ownership might have resulted in the egg leaving Australia, or worse still being broken up and sold in tiny sections as souvenirs.
Not surprisingly the families felt hard done by. They believed the old Aussie code of ‘finders keepers’ should be honoured. In fact, they were so incensed that they took the egg back and young Jamie reburied it! Museum staff were terrified that he might forget the location. After protracted negotiation the families received an ex gratia payment of $25,000 dollars and fortunately Jamie went straight back to the egg, hidden under a particular bush at the beach. The egg is now held at the museum, along with a smaller one, also found on the Western Australian coast at Scott River, in 1930.
Mr Vic Roberts found the Scott River egg when he was ten years old. However, it did not come to public notice until 1962, when the TV presenter and naturalist Harry Butler saw it in a Nannup farmhouse and informed the museum. It is now on permanent loan from Mr Roberts.
The flightless birds were approximately 3 metres tall, and weighed over 450 kilograms. No wonder their eggs were one hundred times larger than a hen’s egg.
My friend, the UK collector and author Errol Fuller, poses below with an Elephant Bird’s egg about to be auctioned with a price guide of £50,000.
If you would like to know more, Errol wrote the wonderful book, Extinct birds. I really treasure my signed copy.
There are less than twenty complete eggs of Aepyornis titan around the world, mostly held in museums. Sir David Attenborough has one that was pieced together from fragments found in Madagascar.
Can you guess the nearest living relative to the giant bird? Ostrich? Emu? No….the flightless kiwi.
It seems a delightful thing that two of nature’s wonders should have been found by two little Australian boys at the beach, sixty years apart.
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