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The Elephant Bird

Not too long ago, a gigantic, flightless bird roamed the island of Madagascar. It stood nearly 10 feet tall and weighed 700 kg.

For centuries, their existence was like a folklore. Marco Polo mentioned hearing stories about them during his travels to the East as early as the 13th century. In the 17th century, Étienne de Flacourt, a French governor of Madagascar, mentioned “a large bird which haunts the Ampatres and lays eggs like the ostriches; so that the people of these places may not take it.” Throughout the 19th century, European travelers in Madagascar saw giant eggs and egg shells, although by then the bird had been extinct for two hundred years.

Elephant Bird

Size comparison: The elephant bird, the ostrich, a human and a chicken. Image credit: DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / DE AGOSTINI / GETTY IMAGES

The Elephant bird belonged to the family Aepyornithidae, and comprised of three different genera Mullerornis, Vorombe and Aepyornis. Of this the Vorombe titan was the largest. One specimen was reported to weight 730 kg, based on a fragmentary femur, but it was likely that some individuals weighted as much as 860 kg.

The Elephant bird has been extinct since at least the early 17th century. There are evidences that humans hunted the bird for food and ate their eggs, but how much of a role humans played in the decline of the elephant bird is not known. 19th-century travelers saw eggshells used as bowls, and a recent archaeological study found remains of eggshells among the remains of human fires. Leg bones of Aepyornis maximus, dated to 10,500 years, show grooves made by stone tools. This discovery pushes the date of arrival of humans on the island by more than 8,000 years—ample time to hunt a bird to extinction.

Another theory is that poultry the settlers brought with them to the island might have introduced some bird diseases the elephant birds could not cope with because they had been isolated for centuries. Besides, the transition from pleistocene to holocene might have already changed the habitat of the elephant bird resulting in their decreasing population. Consequently, when humans arrived in Madagascar, there was already a smaller population of elephant birds struggling to survive the climate change. But it was probably the hunting and destruction of habitat due to agriculture that finally sealed the fate of this colossal birds.

Egg of an Elephant bird. Image credit: Dinoanimals.com

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