10 Facts About Giant Elephant Birds That Lived on Madagascar

The elephant bird, genus name Aepyornis, was the largest bird that ever lived, a 10-foot, 1,000-pound behemoth ratite (flightless, long-legged bird) that stomped across the island of Madagascar. Learn more about this bird with these 10 interesting facts.

01
of 10

It Was Not the Size and Weight of an Elephant but About as Tall

Aepyornis, the elephant bird

El fosilmaníaco / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0

Despite its name, the elephant bird was nowhere near the size of a full-grown elephant. However, it was about as tall. (Note: African bush elephants range from 8.2 to 13 feet tall and weigh 5,000 to 14,000 pounds, while Asian elephants range from 6.6 to 9.8 feet tall and weigh between 4,500 and 11,000 pounds.) The largest specimens the elephant bird Aepyornis were 10 feet tall and weighed about 1,000 pounds—still enough to make it the biggest bird that ever lived.

However, the "bird mimic" dinosaurs that preceded the elephant bird by tens of millions of years and had roughly the same body plan, were in fact elephant-sized. The Deinocheirus may have weighed as much as 14,000 pounds.

02
of 10

It Lived on the Island of Madagascar

Baobab forest in Madagascar
Pierre-Yves Babelon / Getty Images

Ratites, large, flightless birds resembling and including ostriches, tend to evolve in self-contained island environments. Such was the case with the elephant bird, which was restricted to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. It had the advantage of living in a habitat with plenty of lush, tropical vegetation, but scarcely anything in the way of mammalian predators, a surefire recipe for what naturalists refer to as "insular gigantism."

03
of 10

Flightless Kiwi Birds Are Its Closest Living Relatives

The tiny kiwi is related to the giant elephant bird
Dave King / Getty Images

For decades, paleontologists believed that ratites were related to other ratites; i.e., that the giant, flightless elephant bird of Madagascar was close evolutionary kin to the giant, flightless Moa of New Zealand. However, genetic analysis has revealed that the closest living relative of Aepyornis is the kiwi, the largest species of which weigh about seven pounds. Clearly, a small population of Kiwi-like birds landed on Madagascar eons ago, from whence their descendants evolved to giant sizes.

04
of 10

One Fossilized Aepyornis Egg Sold for $100,000

Man holding a humming bird egg next to fossilized egg and ostrich egg
Mint Images - Frans Lanting / Getty Images

Aepyornis eggs aren't quite as rare as hen's teeth, but they're still prized by collectors. There are about a dozen fossil eggs around the world, including one at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., two at the Melbourne Museum in Australia, and a whopping seven at California's Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology. In 2013, an egg in private hands was sold by Christie's auction company for $100,000, about on a par with what collectors pay for small dinosaur fossils.

05
of 10

Marco Polo Could Have Seen It

Marco Polo's Route On Silk Road To China
MPI / Getty Images

In 1298, the famous Italian traveler Marco Polo mentioned an elephant bird in one of his narratives, which has led to over 700 years of confusion. Scholars believe that Polo was actually talking about the rukh, or roc, a mythical beast inspired by a flying, eagle-like bird (which would certainly rule out Aepyornis as the source of the legend). It's possible that Polo glimpsed an actual elephant bird from afar, as this ratite may still have been extant (albeit dwindling) in Madagascar in late medieval times.

06
of 10

Aepyornis and Mullerornis Are Two Types of Elephant Birds

Illustration of extinct Mullerornis bird

orDFoidl / Wikimedia Commons / CC-SA-3.0

For all intents and purposes, most people use the phrase "elephant bird" to refer to Aepyornis. Technically, however, the lesser-known Mullerornis is also classified as an elephant bird, albeit smaller than its famous contemporary. Mullerornis was named by the French explorer Georges Muller, prior to the misfortune of being captured and killed by a hostile tribe in Madagascar (which probably didn't appreciate his intrusion into their territory, even if only for purposes of bird-watching).

07
of 10

An Elephant Bird Is Almost as Tall as a Thunderbird

Illustration of Dromornis stirtoni and prey
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

There's little doubt that Aepyornis was the heaviest bird that ever lived, but it wasn't necessarily the tallest—that honor goes to Dromornis, a "thunderbird" of the Dromornithidae family of Australia. Some individuals measured nearly 12 feet tall. (Dromornis was much more slenderly built, however, only weighing about 500 pounds.) By the way, one species of Dromornis may yet wind up being assigned to the genus Bullockornis, otherwise known as the demon-duck of doom.

08
of 10

It Probably Lived on Fruits

Close up of elephant bird skull

LadyofHats / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

You might think a ratite as fierce and feathery as the elephant bird would spend its time preying on the smaller animals of Pleistocene Madagascar, notably its tree-dwelling lemurs. As far as paleontologists can tell, however, Aepyornis contented itself with picking off low-lying fruit, which grew in abundance in this tropical climate. (This conclusion is supported by studies of a smaller extant ratite, the cassowary of Australia and New Guinea, which is well adapted to a fruit diet.)

09
of 10

Its Extinction Could Be the Fault of Humans

Elephant bird, ostrich, human, chicken

DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Amazingly enough, the first human settlers only arrived on Madagascar around 500 BCE, well after almost every other large landmass in the world had been occupied and exploited by Homo sapiens. While it's clear that this incursion was directly related to the elephant bird's extinction (the last individuals died probably around the mid-17th century), it's unclear whether humans actively hunted Aepyornis, or severely disrupted its environment by raiding its accustomed sources of food.

10
of 10

It Could Be in Line One Day for 'De-Extincting'

North Island Brown Kiwi, Apteryx mantelli, 5 months old, walking
GlobalP / Getty Images

Because it went extinct in historical times and we know about its kinship with the modern kiwi bird, the elephant bird may yet be a candidate for de-extinction. The most likely route would be to recover scraps of its DNA and combine it with a kiwi-derived genome. If you're wondering how a 1,000-pound behemoth can be genetically derived from a five- to seven-pound bird, welcome to the Frankenstein world of modern biology. But don't plan on seeing a living, breathing elephant bird any time soon.