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Elephant Bird

Last updated date: 17th May 2024
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What is Elephant Bird?

Elephant birds were considered to be members of the extinct ratite family Aepyornithidae. The Aepyornithidae were made up of large to enormous flightless birds that once lived on the island of Madagascar. The elephant birds went extinct perhaps around 1200 AD and it was probably because of human activities such as hunting. 

The three elephant bird genera were Mullerornis, Vorombe, and Aepyornis. While they were geographically close to the ostrich, their closest living relatives are the kiwi (found only in New Zealand), showing that ratites did not diversify through vicariance during the breakup of Gondwana, but rather came from ancestors that dispersed more recently by flight.

According to specialists, the Vorombe titan weighed 730 kg (1,600 lb) and stood 3 m (9.8 ft) tall, making it the world's largest (heaviest) bird. It was somewhat larger than the much older Dromornis stirtoni.

In this article we are going to discuss the elephant bird, elephant bird egg, a few of the important facts about the elephant bird, and also frequently asked questions will also be answered.

Elephant Bird Information

  • Elephant Birds were large, flightless birds that flourished in Madagascar until the 18th century. Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire formally characterized and named them in 1851. It was given that moniker because of its enormous size.

  • If you look at photographs of Elephant Birds, you could be disappointed. That's because, despite their size, these birds weren't quite as massive as an elephant. Elephant Birds grew to be around 10-feet long and weighed around 1,000 pounds to half a tonne. While not as enormous as an elephant, it is huge enough to qualify as one of the world's largest birds.

  • This bird resided in Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. One of the fascinating facts about Elephant Birds is that their gigantic size is most likely due to the island’s habitat. That's because it was in a lush tropical habitat with enough foliage to eat but none of the predators that it would have encountered in other places. As a result, this bird was able to grow in size. This is related to a phenomenon known as insular gigantism in evolutionary terms.

  • For many years, it was thought that the Elephant Bird was linked to New Zealand's Giant Moa. When you think about it, they're both huge birds, so it makes sense. That, however, is just not true. Scientists have discovered that they are connected to the kiwi, another New Zealand native. Some biologists think that a bunch of kiwis landed on Madagascar millennia ago and grew to huge proportions.

  • Although the Elephant Bird looks large and frightening, it most likely ate low-hanging tropical fruit rather than the tiny creatures you might imagine. The study of other smaller extant ratites whose bodies are precisely built for a fruit diet has backed up this notion.

Description of an Elephant Bird 

  • Elephant birds have been extinct since the seventeenth century, although several European travellers to Madagascar between 1830 and 1840 reported seeing huge elephant bird eggs and eggshells. Because they were familiar with moa in New Zealand, many English onlookers were more prepared to accept the myth of huge birds and eggs. 

  • Three eggs and some bone pieces were sent to the French Academy of Sciences in 1851. The eggs may reach a length of 34 cm in some circumstances, making them the biggest sort of bird egg yet discovered. The egg was roughly 10 kg in weight. The egg volume is approximately 160 times that of a chicken egg.

  • There is no precise data on how big the elephant birds were in size and weight. But from the fossils which were discovered, few were found to be very large which can be upto 10 feet tall and weighed upto 400 kilograms. Others were found to be relatively smaller but more fossil materials are needed to give a good size range estimation. 

  • In September 2018, scientists discovered that the Vorombe titan weighed 730 kg and might have weighed up to 860 kg based on a partial femur, making it the world's biggest bird. Only the far older Australian species Dromornis stirtoni can match its size among known fossil birds. The upper weight limitations for A. maximus and D. stirtoni were changed to 540 and 730 kg, respectively, in the same publication. 

  • Some eggs display embryonic elephant birds when x-rayed, providing information on the overall shape of the bird, or at least its chick. The tibia, the central bone of the leg, is longer than the tarsus, indicating that the birds were not quick runners. Other creatures on Madagascar were no bigger than a cat, thus they had no need to flee.

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Distribution of the Elephant Bird 

Southwestern Madagascar provided the majority of early accounts and recent fossil material. On the other side of the Indian Ocean from Madagascar, two entire elephant bird eggs were discovered on the beaches of Western Australia. It was determined that these eggs were placed near the sea, washed into the sea by rivers, or delivered to the coast of Madagascar by humans, and then drifted to western Australia. Their survival across a distance of at least 5,000 miles is in fact incredible.

Taxonomy and the Biogeography of the Elephant Bird 

  • Like the bird’s ostrich, rhea, cassowary, emu, kiwi, and the extinct moa, Aepyornis, and Mullerornis were also retites which means they were unable to fly and their breast bones had no keel. There are many theories that support the idea that due to Madagascar and Africa getting separated before the ratite lineage arose, the elephant birds had been thought to have dispersed and eventually became flightless and giant. 

  • More recently, DNA sequence studies have revealed that the closest surviving relatives of elephant birds are New Zealand kiwi, despite the fact that they are not especially closely related, having separated 54 million years ago. Elephant birds are descendants of the Australian ratite radiation from the mid-Cenozoic, and their ancestors flew across the Indian Ocean long after Gondwana disintegrated.

  • The discovery of putative flying palaeognaths like Proapteryx in the Miocene adds to the argument that ratites did not diversify in response to vicariance. The evolutionary tree of Gondwana, which split apart in the Cretaceous, does not fit the process of continental drift. Madagascar's Cenozoic terrestrial fossil record is famously weak, with almost no fossils found between the end of the Cretaceous (Maevarano Formation) and the Late Pleistocene.

  • Molecular clock calculations based on entire mitochondrial genomes extracted from Aepyornis eggshells reveal that Aepyornis and Mullerornis separated roughly 27 million years ago, implying that elephant birds were present in Madagascar before this period.

  • Both the Scott River egg and the Cervantes egg were discovered in dune deposits in southern Western Australia in the 1930s and 1992, respectively; both were classified as Aepyornis maximus rather than Genyornis. The eggs are thought to have travelled from Madagascar to Australia through the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Two fresh penguin eggs that came ashore in Western Australia but originated in the Kerguelen Islands, as well as an ostrich egg, found floating in the Timor Sea in the early 1990s, confirm this theory.

Habitat of the Elephant Bird 

The first French governor of Madagascar, Étienne de Flacourt, was the first to report elephant birds to scientists. In the mid-seventeenth century, he claimed that a big bird known as "vouron patra" could still be spotted in the southern part of the island. Elephant birds were considered to have inhabited the woods and woods of southern Madagascar. Humans arrived on the island some 2,000 years ago and fragmented and burnt these ecosystems, leading the birds to lose their livelihood and become extinct shortly after Flacourt's account.

Feeding Ecology, Diet, and The Behavior of The Elephant Bird 

  • As the elephant birds have gone extinct since the 17th century, nothing specific is known about the behavior of these birds. A beautiful folk story told by Marco Polo in which enormous birds captured elephants, soared into the sky, and then dropped the elephants to kill and feast on them may have given elephant birds their name.

  • Because there is no rainforest fossil record in Madagascar, it is impossible to say whether there were animals adapted to deep forest living, such as the cassowary found in Australia and New Guinea today. Some rainforest fruits with thick, highly sculptured endocarps, such as those of the currently undispersed and highly threatened forest coconut palm Voanioala gerardii, may have been adapted for passage through ratite guts, and the fruit of some palm species example, Ravenea louvelii and Satranala decussilvae are dark bluish-purple, just like many cassowary-dispersed fruits.

  • Forest fruits are said to have been eaten by elephant birds. They may have played a role in the spread of some of the island's fruit-bearing plants, which are today known only from a few extremely ancient individual trees.

Reproduction in the Elephant Bird 

  • The elephant eggs discovered in the past have been discussed because of the fact that the elephant bird went extinct in the 17th century as a result of this we don't have exact data on the reproductive process of the elephant birds.

  • There are many subfossils of the elephant bird found all around the world. A specimen of an Aepyornis egg provided to Luis Marden in 1967 is housed in the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The specimen is complete and includes the unhatched bird's skeleton. Two entire eggs are kept in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado, one of which is now on exhibit. A whole, the unbroken egg is on show at the Leeds Discovery Centre in the United Kingdom, while another huge Aepyornis egg is on show at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Grant Museum of Zoology at London University has a cast of the egg.

  • There is a complete elephant egg specimen that is available in the collection of the University of Wrocław Museum of Natural History. The Delaware Museum of Natural History, located outside Wilmington, Delaware, US, has an undamaged example of an elephant bird's egg (in contrast to the eggs of other bird species, including a hummingbird's), and the Natural History Museum in London has another.

  • The Melbourne Museum has elephant bird eggs. Seven Aepyornis egg(elephant bird egg) specimens are housed in the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, which has one of the world's greatest collections of bird eggs.

  • Two eggs were discovered off the coast of Western Australia, one in the 1930s and the other in 1992. The egg discovered in Cervantes was 2000 years old, according to research, and had most likely travelled across the Indian Ocean.

  • Elephant birds most likely lay tiny clutches, probably just one egg, and hence reproduce slowly. In 1832, a traveller called Sganzin brought a drawing of one of the huge eggs to collector Jules Verreaux from Madagascar, which became the first scientific data on elephant birds. The eggs would have weighed around 13 lb or 6 kg and would have been among the world's biggest single cells.

Extinction of the Elephant Birds 

  • Elephant birds are thought to have become extinct as a result of human activities. The birds were formerly common across Madagascar, ranging from the north to the south. According to one idea, people drove elephant birds to extinction in a relatively short period of time for such a massive area. There is proof that they were hunted and that their natural habitats were devastated. It's possible that eggs were particularly sensitive. Eggshells were used as bowls by 19th-century visitors, and a recent archaeological investigation discovered eggshells amidst the remnants of human fires, implying that the eggs were frequently served meals for entire families.

  • It's also unclear when they became extinct; legends about these enormous birds may have survived in folk memory for decades. There is archaeological evidence of Aepyornis (elephant bird) from a radiocarbon-dated bone dating to 1880 70 BP  which is about 120 CE with signs of butchering, and from radiocarbon dating of shells dating to around 1000 BP  which is approximately 1000 CE.

  • Another argument is that the extinction was a side consequence of human impact, caused by the transmission of hyper diseases from human commensals like chickens and guineafowl. These farmed fowl's bones have been discovered at subfossil sites around the island, including Madagascar, where Mullerornis sp. and Aepyornis Maximus have been discovered.

  • Human tool marks have recently been discovered on elephant bird bones dating from around 10,000 BCE. This not only broadens the area of human life in Madagascar's prehistoric past but also shows a more complex interaction between these birds and humans, as well as their eventual demise, given that they coexisted for such a long time. However, the lack of evidence of human settlement in the subsequent 6000 years raises challenging concerns about whether the early human presence was perhaps brief and/or limited to a small area of the island.

FAQs on Elephant Bird

1. List Out All the Important Facts and Elephant Bird Information?

Ans: Here are all the important facts about the elephant birds that everyone should know about. 

  • An elephant bird was not equal to the size of an actual elephant but they were equally taller: Despite its name, the elephant birds were nowhere near the size of a full-grown elephant however it was as tall as an elephant. The greatest example of the elephant bird Aepyornis stood 10 feet tall and weighed around 1,000 pounds, making it the world's largest bird. The "bird mimic" dinosaurs, which lived tens of millions of years before the elephant bird and had a body plan similar to that of the elephant bird, were, in reality, elephant-sized. It's possible that the Deinocheirus weighed up to 14,000 pounds.

  • Elephant birds lived on the islands of Madagascar:  Ratites, enormous, flightless birds that look like ostriches and include them, have evolved in self-contained island settings. The elephant bird, for example, was once isolated to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, off Africa's eastern coast. It had the benefit of existing in a setting with an abundance of lush, tropical foliage but few animal predators, a definite prescription for "insular gigantism," as naturalists call it.

  • Flightless Kiwi birds are the closest relatives of the Elephant birds: For decades, palaeontologists assumed that ratites were connected to other ratites, i.e., that Madagascar's gigantic, flightless elephant bird and New Zealand's gigantic, flightless Moa were evolutionary cousins. The closest living relative of Aepyornis, according to genetic study, is the kiwi, the biggest species of which weighs roughly seven pounds. Clearly, a tiny group of Kiwi-like birds landed in Madagascar millennia ago, and their offspring grew to enormous proportions.

  • The two types of Elephant birds are the Aepyornis and Mullerornis: Most people refer to Aepyornis as an "elephant bird" for all intents and purposes. The lesser-known Mullerornis, on the other hand, is technically an elephant bird, but smaller than its renowned counterpart. Mullerornis was named by the French adventurer Georges Muller before he was abducted and slain by a hostile tribe in Madagascar.

  • An elephant bird is considered to be as tall as a thunderbird: Aepyornis was without a doubt the heaviest bird that ever lived, but it wasn't the tallest—that accolade belongs to Dromornis, an Australian "thunderbird" from the Dromornithidae family. Some of the people were nearly 12 feet tall. (Dromornis, on the other hand, was considerably more slenderly constructed, weighing just roughly 500 pounds.) By the way, one Dromornis species may potentially be classified as the genus Bullockornis, which is also known as the devil.

  • Elephant birds probably lived on fruits: Everyone might think that a bird as big as the elephant bird might have lived by preying and hunting smaller animals but there have been many discoveries that have shown that the elephant birds might have lived on just fruits and vegetables which grew abundantly in the tropical climate. 

  • Elephant bird extinction could be because of the humans: Surprisingly, the first human inhabitants came to Madagascar approximately 500 BCE, far after Homo sapiens had inhabited and exploited practically every other big continent on the planet. While it's obvious that humans contributed to the demise of the elephant bird (the final individuals perished presumably during the mid-17th century), it's unclear if humans actively targeted Aepyornis or significantly damaged its ecology by plundering its habitual food sources.

  • An elephant bird could be in line one day for 'De-Extincting': The elephant bird may potentially be a candidate for extinction because it became extinct in historical periods and we now know about its relation with the present kiwi bird. The most likely path would be to salvage pieces of its DNA and mix them with a genome obtained from a kiwi. Welcome to the Frankenstein world of contemporary biology, where a 1,000-pound monster may be genetically created from a five- to the seven-pound bird. However, don't expect to see a live elephant bird anytime soon.

2. Why Did The Earlier Elephant Bird Disappear?

Ans: Elephant birds used to be rather prevalent in Madagascar. They weighed at least half a tonne, stood approximately 3 meters tall, and deposited massive eggs that were even larger than those deposited by dinosaurs. The elephant birds, Aepyornis and Mullerornis, thrived on the island alongside other unusual species such as enormous lemurs, who were also extinct. There are other ideas as to why and when this occurred, as well as the extent to which humans were engaged.

There are many remains of the elephant birds that have been discovered by the palaeontologist that shows that the fossils of the elephant birds date back to about ten thousand years ago. According to many scientists, there is much evidence that has been found that shows that the elephant birds of Madagascar were hunted and killed for food by humans.

The first human settlers arrived on the islands of Madagascar about 4000 years ago and for almost 9,000 years, humans appear to have coexisted with elephant birds and other now-extinct species, presumably with no deleterious influence on biodiversity. To conclude there are many theories that suggest and support the concept that it was humans who were solely responsible for the extinction of the elephant bird. 

3. List Out All The Species of The Elephant Bird?

Ans: There are up to eleven species of the genus Aepyornis that have been described but the validity of many has been controversial with many authors treating them all in just one species which is Aepyornis maximus. Mullerornis has been divided into three species. However, according to Hansford & Turvey (2018), there are just four aepyornithid species: two in Aepyornis, one in Mullerornis, and one in Vorombe.