As we approach Thanksgiving, I have been witness to arguments about how the size of a turkey relates to its tenderness.

Some say that large and therefore older turkeys are tougher and not as digestible as younger turkeys. Others prefer bigger turkeys that can weigh as much as 40 pounds. (The heaviest turkey raised weighted 86 pounds.) Generally, smaller birds cook faster and thus spend less time in the oven, giving the meat less chance to dry out. Thus smaller turkeys are younger and have moister, more tender meat.

This culinary controversy piqued my interest when I read about a previously unidentified ancient genus of a bird discovered in Madagascar that weighed more than 1,700 pounds. (Based on weight, it was likely not something you may wish to eat.)  Before that time, the largest bird was thought to be an earlier elephant bird also of Madagascar; it stood nearly 10 feet tall and weighed up to 1,000 pounds.

This flightless cousin of the ostrich went extinct in the 17th century, thanks in part to humans stealing their massive eggs, either to feed their own families or to repurpose them as giant rum casks, or both. More recently, the bird's designation as the heaviest in history was challenged by the slightly larger, unrelated Australian giant that went extinct more than 20,000 years ago.

There are actually three genera of elephant birds and four species: Mulleornis modestus, Aepyornis hildebrandti, Aepyornis maximus and now the largest, Vorombe titan. All were nocturnal and possibly blind. The recent discovery should contribute to conservation efforts on Madagascar, where many unique species of plants and animals are threatened.

Madagascar, a huge island off the southeast coast of Africa, is primarily renowned for its high biodiversity. Proportionate to land area, there is no other zone in the world with higher concentrations of biotic endemism (restricted to a certain country of area) across different species, many of which remain among the great unsolved mysteries of natural history.

Much may be due to the long isolation of Madagascar from Africa. Around 160 million years ago, Madagascar was attached to the African mainland as part of the super continent Gondwanaland (formed of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, India and Madagascar.) As Gondwanaland broke apart, Madagascar moved away from Africa.  

Madagascar contains rainforests, mountains, beaches and reefs and is home to thousands of animal species, such as lemurs and giant jumping rats, found nowhere else. (Lemurs are primates that look like a cat crossed with a squirrel and a dog.) The same is true for plants; of its estimated 12,000 plant species, nearly 10,000 are unique to Madagascar.

Its geography is linked to the exceptional species richness, concentrations of endemic species, and more recently the loss of more than 70 percent of the original primary vegetation. Three of its unique ecosystems are so degraded that many large animal species have also been lost, and the remainder are unlikely to maintain viable populations beyond 2040.

With astounding frequency, scientists discover a previously unknown species on the island, and at almost the same rate another natural area is degraded or destroyed, a combination that recently led conservation organizations to name Madagascar one of the most threatened and important priorities on the planet.

Anyone interested in learning more about the country should read “The Natural History of Madagascar.” It provides the most comprehensive, up-to-date synthesis available of this island nation's priceless biological treasures. Contributions by nearly 300 world-renowned experts cover the history of scientific exploration, its geology and soils, climate, forest ecology, marine and coastal ecosystems, plants, invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book includes over 100 color illustrations and more than 300 black-and-white photographs and line drawings.

The first humans to settle in Madagascar came from the island of Borneo, which is now divided between the countries of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. They arrived between 350 BCE and 550 CE in canoes, and weren't joined by mainland Africans until almost 500 years later. There is new evidence that human arrival was as early as 10,000 years ago. Human arrival led to the decline and extinction of plant and animal species.

Over time, African, Asian and European settler groups arrived, each bringing their own unique contributions to the island culture. Current residents described as Malagasy, are mixed Malayo-Indonesian and African-Arab ancestry. Malagasy and French are the official languages.

The unique culture, climate, topography, flora, fauna and history make Madagascar someplace adventuresome and curious people may wish to visit.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.