Prehistoric animals came in all sizes during many different time periods. Most of the largest species of animals were alive millions of years ago during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Earth is 4.543 billion years old and has housed many animals of all shapes and sizes. In this article, we will be talking about the giant bird species known as the ‘Elephant Bird’. This animal was the largest bird to ever have existed. It weighed 1,600 lbs. and stood 10 ft. tall.
With fossils and knowledge of modern animals, scientists are able to learn about animals that have been extinct thousands of years ago. The approximate size, habitat, and even diet of past animals can be discovered. While some information can be limited, there are plenty of ways to learn about extinct species. Let’s take a look at the largest bird to ever exist, and what is known about them.
What did Elephant Birds Look Like?
The Elephant bird has been described as a very large flightless bird with ostrich-like features. These birds once lived among mankind, so there are some folktales and even written descriptions of this species. The first full description of this species was made in the 19th century by french zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The remains of this animal are abundant due to their extinction being fairly recent.
The fossilized remains of the Elephant bird show that the wings of this species were relatively small and would have been useless for flight. They had two very thick long legs with three-toed feet and long necks with conical beaks. Even though their legs were long, due to their heaviness, these birds were most likely slow. Their size and speed made them easy to track and hunt down.
There have been more than ten species of the elephant bird described though most of these species’ validity is still being disputed. There are currently four recognized species; Aepyornis hildebrandti, Aepyornis maximus, Mullerornis modestus, and Vorombe titan. The average height of each species is around 9.5 to 10 feet tall while the weight varies. It is believed V. titan reached a maximum weight of 1,900 lbs. Both Aepyornis reached a maximum of around 1,200 lbs.
Diet and Habitat of the Elephant Bird
While these birds were large and seemed like they would prey on smaller creatures, the elephant bird was actually a herbivore. The studies of smaller birds similar to the elephant bird brought researchers to the conclusion that this species’ diet is likely the same. They would have had a diet consisting mainly of low-lying fruit that was native to their rainforest homes. Experts believe elephant birds played a key role in the dispersal of fruit seeds around the island which helped grow more fruit-bearing plants.
The elephant bird lived on the Island of Madagascar and is believed to have inhabited more isolated areas of the island. They inhabited the southern forests of Madagascar before humans migrated to the area. Elephant birds also inhabited open areas though this was less common. Research has led experts to believe, like their relative the kiwi, the elephant bird was most likely nocturnal. Due to this species living on a more isolated land mass, they were easily able to evolve to enormous size. This is due to the lack of mammalian predators and the abundance of lush tropical vegetation.
Fossils and Discoveries
Due to the extinction of the elephant bird being more recent in history, there have been many fossils discovered and examined. Madagascar is known for having a poor Cenozoic terrestrial fossil record, so there are basically no fossils from the end of the Cretaceous to the Late Pleistocene. Through the research of mitochondrial genomes from recovered Aepyornis eggshells, it is believed that the elephant bird species had been present in Madagascar for more than 27 million years.
So far there is no evidence that suggests the elephant bird lived anywhere other than Madagascar. However, there have been claims of egg remains being found in the eastern Canary Islands. While these claims have not been confirmed to be true, if they are valid this would present a major biogeographical enigma. Today these eggs are thought to be from an extinct species of North African bird.
Two whole eggs identified as being from the species Aepyornis maximus have been found in Western Australia. Because this species was not present in Australia it is believed these eggs were carried from Madagascar to Australia on the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. While they are definitely not as common as the fossilized remains of this species, about a dozen enormous fossilized eggs have been discovered. Some eggs have been found completely intact with the skeletons of unhatched elephant birds inside of them.
Human Interaction with the Elephant Bird
Carbon dating suggests that the elephant bird species, A. hildebrandti, was alive on the island of Madagascar until about 1,560-1,300 years ago. That verifies this species most likely lived alongside humans after the island was inhabited. Elephant birds were more likely to inhabit isolated areas away from humans. However, there have been writings about people seeing what looks like a giant ostrich which is now believed to have been an elephant bird.
In 1659, French governor of Madagascar Étienne de Flacourt, wrote of a very large bird that inhabits isolated areas and layed eggs like an ostrich. During the 13th century Italian traveler, Marco Polo wrote of hearing many stories of very large birds during his trip to Madagascar. At first, scholars believed Polo was speaking of a mythical beast said to look like a giant flying eagle-like bird. These are now believed to be descriptions of the elephant bird.
How the Elephant Bird Became Extinct
It is known the elephant bird was once widespread from North to South Madagascar. It is also known these giant birds lived among humans for a period of time until their extinction. The exact period of time they became extinct is currently unknown, but it is known they lived until at least 1,600 years ago. The reason for extinction is not exactly known, but there are multiple things that most likely play a part in the disappearance of this species.
There have been multiple fossils of the elephant bird found with tool marks that date back to approximately 10,000 BC. However, it is not exactly known when humans appeared in Madagascar, and this is still seen as a controversial finding. It is believed that humans not only hunted these animals to extinction but also brought disease to the animals causing them to die off even faster. Climate and vegetation change are also noted to be a cause for extinction as well as habitat loss due to deforestation.
Similar Animals to the Elephant Bird
Today the ostrich is the largest flightless bird. Across earth’s history, there have been several types of flightless birds, many now extinct. There are around 60 extant species of flightless birds.
Some species today include:
- Greater Rhea
- Falkland steamer duck
The dodo is one of the most recent species of flightless birds to go extinct. Birds that cannot fly have bodies that are adept at walking and smaller wing bones. It is believed that birds may evolve to become flightless, in habitats that are not filled with predators. While there are not many species today, there are many examples of flightless birds throughout the earth’s history.
Birds are amazing! These articles from the AZ Animal team are worth checking out if you want to learn more about interesting birds.
- Cassowary Speed: How Fast Can These Giant Birds Run?
- The Top 9 Largest Flying Birds in the World By Wingspan
- How an Extinct Bird Re-Evolved Itself from the Dead
- This Gigantic Bird Had a 20 Foot Wingspan and a Terrifying Beak with Teeth
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