Land of the Roc

Land of the Roc

Eons ago the island of Madagascar was part of Africa. Ancient geologic upheavals caused it to split from the continent and, in the course of about 80 million years, to "drift" to its present location approximately 250 miles east of Africa. Being a large, isolated island Madagascar developed unique flora and fauna. Among its specimens is an earthworm a yard long and an inch thick. Here is also the home of the tenrec, a hedgehoglike mammal acclaimed in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mouth of any mammal its size and for the largest number of young born in a single litter (32, although the normal litter is a modest 12 to 18). The island is the home to several small primates, such as the aye—aye and the lemur. The largest carnivore is the catlike fossa, two and one—half feet long.

Small though the typical fauna of Madagascar may be, it was also the home of the legendary roc. Herodotus, in the fifth century b.c., wrote of a race of huge birds described by Egyptian priests. Found beyond the source of the Nile, these birds could carry off men in their talons. During the Middle Ages a boatload of Arab sailors that had landed on Madagascar told tales of a gigantic bird. Beyond its size, their descriptions were quite limited, so imagination was used to fill in the blanks. The stories became part of the The Thousand and One Nights. The tale of the roc (or rukh to the Persians) was narrated by the long—suffering Sinbad the Sailor. According to his account, he arrived at "a beautiful island abounding with trees bearing ripe fruits, with birds warbling, and pure rivers." Here Sinbad spied a huge, puzzling white dome. It appeared to be a large building so, in search of an opening, he walked completely around it—a full 50 paces.

While contemplating the smooth, impenetrable dome, Sinbad noticed that the sky had darkened. Looking up he beheld a gigantic bird, most surely the roc, whose young were fed elephants. The parent roc would prepare an elephant for eating by seizing one in its claws, flying with it to great heights, and dropping it. Then the roc would carry off the smashed carcass to its nestlings. "And while I wondered at the works of God . . . that bird alighted upon the dome, and brooded over it with its wings, stretching out its legs behind upon the ground; and it slept over it." Sinbad realized then that the enormous dome without an entrance was the giant egg of the giant bird.

Madagascar was also visited by Marco Polo, who may have actually seen the great bird. His description was as unrestrained as Sinbad's. He apparently told Kublai Khan about the roc, so the Khan sent an expedition to Madagascar in 1294 to confirm the story of the bird "so big in fact that its wings covered an extent of 30 paces, and its quills were 12 paces long and thick in proportion, and it feeds on elephants." The expedition brought back only a feather from the roc. But what a feather! It measured "90 spans in length" (about 60 feet).

Scholars believe that the Khan's men probably brought back a frond of the raffia palm that, when dried, superficially resembles a feather. The Khan doubtless believed, much to the relief of the sailors, that this was a feather from the fabled roc. He rewarded the leaders of the expedition quite handsomely.

Considering the actual observations of the Arab sailors and of the notoriously reliable Marco Polo, both evidently saw a bird of tremendous size. Evidence also shows that an enormous bird lived on Madagascar through the 14th century and became the inspiration for the legend of the roc. Further documentation shows that this bird existed until about 250 years ago but is now extinct.

When France took possession of Madagascar in 1642, authorities noted that some of the natives kept water in enormous egg shells. A history of the island by the French governor referred to a giant bird in the south that laid gigantic eggs. In 1850 a French merchant obtained three eggs and some roc bones. He shipped them safely to Paris, where they were studied by the awestruck director of the Paris Zoo, Geoffrey Saint—Hilaire. He reported on two eggs measuring 13 by 81/2 inches and 155/8 by 125/8 inches, the largest bird eggs ever seen; each held over two gallons of fluid. One egg was capable of holding as much as the contents of six ostrich eggs or 150 chicken eggs. An omelet made from a single roc egg would serve 75 people.

Saint—Hilaire imagined a bird resembling an ostrich, powerful and flightless, that stood 16 feet tall. He named it Aepyornis maximus, "the tallest of high birds." In 1866, in a swamp, a scientist named Alfred Gandidier discovered some huge bones in a perfect state of preservation. At first sight they seemed to belong to some large pachyderm, but they proved to belong to Aepyornis. It was at once nicknamed and is still known as the elephant bird. Near the end of 1866 a complete skeleton of Aepyornis finally came to light in Madagascar. Instead of being as tall as a two—story building it was a mere nine or ten feet tall. It must have weighed almost a thousand pounds in life; being four times as heavy as an ostrich, it was hardly an inconspicuous bird.

The mystery of the roc was finally settled to the general satisfaction of those who wondered about this monstrous bird of the vast eggs that had been glimpsed in the jungles of Madagascar and had inspired legends. Unable to fly, A. maximus could scarcely have carried off an elephant or blotted out the sun as it spread its wings. These are pardonable exaggerations of storytellers; the real bird was impressive enough.

All the indications are that the elephant bird died out about 250 years ago; there is no evidence that the island's human population caused its extinction. They seem not to have hunted A. maximus, although they may have helped its demise along by gathering the eggs.

Scientists have inferred that A. maximus was a resident of jungle swamps. Hundreds of years ago the climate of Madagascar began to change, becoming gradually less moist. This caused many of the swamps to dry up, and the bird would thus have been driven into an ever narrower habitat, finally unable to gather enough food or find the right shelter to survive. Many A. maximus skeletons have been discovered in a large dried mud deposit of a former swamp. Researchers believe this was the area in which the last surviving members of the species huddled together until death overtook them. There were no survivors.

In far—off New Zealand was a bird that would have towered above the elephant bird of Madagascar. It was the moa, which actually did stand 12 feet tall. But that's another story.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning