Despite its name, the Elephant Bird (genus name Aepyornis) was nowhere near the size of a full-grown elephant; rather, the largest specimens of this ratite were 10 feet tall and weighed about half a ton, still enough to make it the biggest bird that ever lived.
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: Deinocheirus may have weighed as much as seven tons!
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 Island ocean of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. Aepyornis 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.”
For decades, paleontologists believed that ratites were related to other ratites–for example, 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.
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, 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 for $100,000, about on a par with what collectors pay for small dinosaur fossils.
The Elephant Bird Was Referenced by Marco Polo
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.
Aepyornis Wasn’t the Only “Elephant Bird”
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, who had 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).
The Elephant Bird Was Slightly Shorter than the Thunder Bird
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, the “Thunder Bird” of Australia, some individuals of which 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.”
The Elephant Bird Probably Subsisted on Fruits
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).
The Elephant Bird Was Doomed to Extinction by Human Settlers
Amazingly enough, the first human settlers only arrived on Madagascar around 500 B.C., well after almost every other large land mass 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 about 700 to 1,000 years ago), it’s unclear whether humans actively hunted Aepyornis, or severely disrupted its environment by raiding its accustomed sources of food.
It May Be Possible to “De-Extinct” the Elephant Bird
Because it went extinct in historical times, and we know about its kinship with the modern Kiwi, 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-pound bird, welcome to the Frankenstein world of modern biology–and don’t plan on seeing a living, breathing Elephant Bird any time soon!