Elephant Birds (Aepyornithidae)
Extinct, large, flightless birds of massive build, known only from fragmentary fossil remains
Some species probably 10 ft (3 m), 880 lb (400 kg)
Number of genera, species
2 genera; 7 species
Thought to have inhabited woodland and forest in southwest Madagascar
Evolution and systematics
Elephant birds belong to the group of large, flightless birds known as ratites. Ratites had a distinctive palate, and a sternum (breastbone) with no keel, so there was no anchor for the strong musculature needed for powered flight.
The origin of these birds has recently been clarified by the discovery of numerous good fossils in North America and Europe. Ratites were once thought to have a southern origin in the ancient continent of Gondwana, but new fossil evidence shows that flying ratites inhabited the Northern Hemisphere in the Paleocene and Eocene, 40–70 million years ago. The present Southern Hemisphere distribution of ratites probably resulted from the spread of flying ancestors of the group from the north.
Another indication that ancestors of elephant birds reached Madagascar as flying birds is that no fossils of ratites or elephant birds are found in India. In the process of separation of Gondwana into multiple continents, Madagascar and India remained joined for millions of years after breaking away from Gondwana. If elephant birds had walked to Madagascar, they would surely also have reached India. On the other hand, numerous remains of birds from genera such as Mullerornis and Aepyornis are known from the Quaternary period of Madagascar. They were found in rock strata that are at most two million years old.
Elephant birds seem most closely related to present-day ostriches. Two fossil birds, Eremopezus eocaenus and Stromeria fajumensis, from the lower Tertiary of Egypt are sometimes placed in the Aepyornithidae, but opinion is divided about their relationships and they are omitted from the family in this treatment.
Seven separate species of elephant bird are known to have existed: Mullerornis betsilei, Mullerornis agilis, Mullerornis rudis, Aepyornis maximus, Aepyornis medius, Aepyornis hildebrandti, and Aepyornis gracilis.
No precise estimate can be made of the size and weight of these birds. Some were very large, up to 10 ft (3 m) tall, and weighed 880 lb (400 kg). Others were probably smaller, but more fossil material is needed to give good size-range estimates. When x-rayed, some eggs reveal embryonic elephant
birds, giving clues about the form of the whole bird, or at least its chick. The middle bone of the leg, the tibia, is longer than the lowest bone, the tarsus, indicating the birds were not fast runners. They had no need to run because other animals on Madagascar were no larger than a cat.
Most early reports and recent fossil material have come from southwestern Madagascar. Two intact elephant bird eggs were found on the beaches of western Australia, on the far side of the Indian Ocean from Madagascar. It was concluded that these eggs were laid near the sea, washed into the sea by rivers or brought to the coast by human inhabitants of Madagascar, and floated to western Australia. Their survival on a journey of at least 5,000 mi (8,000 km) is remarkable.
Étienne de Flacourt, the first French governor of Madagascar, was the first to report to scientists about elephant birds. He stated that a giant bird called "vouron patra" was still frequently found in the southern half of the island in the mid-seventeenth century. It is thought that elephant birds lived in the forests and woodlands of southwestern Madagascar. When human inhabitants arrived on the island about 2,000 years ago, they fragmented and burned these environments, causing the birds to lose their livelihood and become extinct soon after Flacourt's report.
Nothing is known of the behavior of these birds. An account by Marco Polo in which large birds seized elephants, flew into the sky, then dropped the elephants to kill them and feast on them is a delightful fairy tale that may have given elephant birds their name.
Feeding ecology and diet
Elephant birds are thought to have fed on forest fruits. They may have been important in the dispersal of some fruit-bearing plants on the island—plants that are now known only from a few very old individual trees.
It is likely that elephant birds laid small clutches, perhaps of only one egg, and therefore reproduced slowly. The first scientific data on elephant birds was a report on their eggs made when a traveler named Sganzin sent a sketch of one of the giant eggs to collector Jules Verreaux from Madagascar in 1832. The eggs would have weighed about 13 lb (6 kg) and would be some of the largest single cells ever known.
Significance to humans
Flacourt reported that the natives used remains of elephant bird eggs as vessels. The shells are several millimeters thick; they may be more than 12 in (30 cm) long, and their volume is given as more than 1.6 gal (6 l). This corresponds to more than six ostrich eggs or more than 150 chicken eggs. Even today, many broken eggshells litter the beaches of southwestern Madagascar. The eggs and the birds that laid them must have been a great food resource for local people.
Davies, S. J. J. F. Ratites and Tinamous. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. London: Hart-Davis, 1959.
Brodkorb, P. "Catalogue of Fossil Birds. Part 1." Bulletin of the Florida State Museum (Biological Sciences) 7 (1963): 205–7.
Wetmore, A. "Re-creating Madagascar's Giant Extinct Bird." National Geographic 132 (1967): 488–93.
S. J. J. F. Davies, ScD