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286

roc

OLogy Series
anthropology
card
286

roc

OLogy Series
anthropology

According to legend, the roc was a giant bird large and strong enough to carry an elephant in its claws. As incredible as it may seem, long ago people believed this bird of prey was real. Famous explorers like Marco Polo described the roc from travelers' tales. One source of these tales may have been an actual bird--the now extinct Aepyornis, a 10-foot tall bird that lived on Madagascar.

The Aepyornis that really lived in Madagascar is often called the "elephant bird" because:

like the roc, it could carry an elephant in its claws

its name was inspired by the mythical roc

it was as heavy as an elephant

Are you right?

Correct!

Even though its name probably comes from the roc story, the Aepyornis did not fly. And it could not have hunted elephants because it was too small--much smaller than an elephant. Besides, no elephants live in Madagascar!

The Maori people also tell stories of a giant bird that once lived in New Zealand. These tales are based on:

ostriches

mythic legends of the roc

an extinct huge eagle

Are you right?

Correct!

With a 10-foot long wingspan, the extinct Haast's eagle was the largest eagle to ever live. This flying bird preyed on moas, large birds related to ostriches. The Haast's eagle lived until about 500 years ago and could have been remembered by the Maori's ancestors.

The roc appears in Arabian Nights, stories from Middle East. The hero Sindbad finds a white dome-shaped building that turns out to be:

a roc egg

a roc burial site

the skull of a roc

Are you right?

Correct!

The egg is on an island that turns out to be the roc's gigantic nest. To escape the island, Sindbad ties himself to the roc's enormous leg before it flies away.

Laurel Kendall, anthropologist

Stories of the roc are also based on Garuda, a birdlike creature found in Hindu stories. Like Garuda, the roc is said to eat both snakes and elephants.

In reality, birds cannot carry away animals in their claws.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Birds of prey like hawks, eagles, and falcons often swoop down and seize animals like fish, snakes, and rabbits. Fossils show that long ago, large birds even preyed on small children.

Scientists have discovered five-foot long feathers as proof that the half-ton Aepyornis really lived on Madagascar.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Fossil bones and eggs are the best evidence that the Aepyornis really did live in Madagascar. In fact, the egg has the largest volume of any known egg--two gallons!

Description: giant bird of prey that carries elephants in its talons
Place of origin: Middle East
Significance: Appears in accounts of famous explorers and in Arabian legends.
Possible explanation: May have been inspired by giant extinct birds such as the Aepyornis.
Cool fact: In one account, the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan was given a roc "feather" as a gift. It may have been a branch from a large palm tree.

Image credits: Sean Murtha; Laurel Kendall: courtesy of AMNH.