Extinct Birds Series: The Elephant Bird

The Elephant Bird
The Elephant Bird

While there is a vast range of local birds for tourists to see when they settle on a Madagascar wildlife vacation, there are one species that visitors will, unfortunately, miss out on – by about 500 years! The Elephant Bird was native to Madagascar before its sad extinction in the 15th century. The elephant birds were once popular – the famous explorer Marco Polo mentioned sighting the huge creatures in his accounts of his journeys to the east in the 12th century. The birds were indeed easy to spot from a distance, standing at over three meters tall and weighing over 1100 pounds!

Like other giant birds, such as the ostrich and the emu, it is thought that the Elephant Bird eventually lacked the capacity for flight – after all, it would have taken some serious muscle to lift such a heavyweight off the ground, never mind holding it in the air for any length of time. People exploring Madagascar should be happy to know that they are in no danger of having a tired Elephant Bird land nearby – although it is undoubtedly a shame such a unique species is now extinct. While it may seem like a secret as to how flightless birds got to an archipelago in the first place, it is worth knowing that a land bridge to Madagascar probably existed from Gondwana (a huge supercontinent) at some point in the past. It is believed that it served as an open invitation for many unique species to start life on what would later become an island.

It’s a wide-spread belief that the major reason for the Elephant Bird’s extinction was, sadly, human hunting. With their enormous size, they may have been famous for food, and there is evidence that humans ate the similarly massive eggs of the species as well. Fragments of eggs have been discovered at ancient campsites, and so it seems that the birds were useful in many ways for ancient humans. 

Aepyornis eggs, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris

However, an alternative theory of the bird’s destruction was that human settlers carried new avian diseases to the island through the chickens and other fowl they brought with them. These were responsible for depleting the population. 

Here are three facts about the Elephant Bird 

  1. Bigger than cassowaries, kiwis, ostriches, and emus, the elephant bird was recently confirmed to be the largest bird known to humankind. It towered nearly nine feet tall.
  2. One elephant bird egg was equal to about 120 chicken eggs. And measured about a foot in length and was large enough to hold two-and-a-half gallons — the equivalent of around 120 chicken eggs.
  3. Elephant birds once walked the isolated island of Madagascar. It is believed that the humans’ arrival led to their demise. Though there’s little proof humans hunted these innocent giants, their eggs were highly prized. 

Was it worth reading? Let us know.