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What Were Elephant Birds?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Elephant birds were massive birds found on the island of Madagascar through the 1500s, when they finally succumbed to human pressure and became extinct. These birds were the largest living birds on Earth at the time, and evidence suggests that they may have been among the largest birds to ever live; adults could measure more than 10 feet (three meters) tall, which must have been quite a sight.

Technically, the term “elephant bird” is used as an umbrella term to describe four species of bird in the family Aepyornithidae, with the Giant Elephant Bird being the largest. Two genera, Aepyornis and Mullerornis, have been classified in this family. Elephant birds are also known by the alternate name Vorompatra, a word taken from the Malagasy language.

Evidence about how elephant birds looked and moved appears in the form of skeletons, fossils, drawings, and contemporary depictions. Elephant birds were, by all accounts, very stocky and muscular, and drawings seem to suggest that they looked like especially large chickens with very long necks. Their plumage appears to have been gray, while their beaks were adapted to eat a wide variety of tropical fruits and plants on their native island of Madagascar.

These flightless birds are classified as ratites, which means that they lack the keel, the part of the breast bone to which flight muscles could attach. Many ratites have achieved formidable sizes; ostriches, emus, and rheas are all ratites, for example, and many have also evolved on islands. Elephant birds are probably only distantly related to other ratites, as Madagascar separated from Africa so long ago that the birds most likely evolved on their own. Some people have suggested that elephant birds probably provided the inspiration for the fearsome rocs in the tales of Sinbad the Sailor.

As a result on their insular environment, elephant birds were woefully unprepared for European civilization, when it arrived. The birds were by all accounts rather slow and stupid, making them easy targets for traveling sailors, and while their large size inspired awe, it wasn't enough to protect the birds from being hunted to extinction. Several natural history collections have examples of elephant bird skeletons and fossilized eggs on display, and they are well worth seeing if you have a chance to visit.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sinefey — On Feb 07, 2010

A ten foot tall chicken! I've read that they also were probably about 800lbs and eggs could be 3ft in circumference!!

Because they were easy to kill and must have provided a lot of meat, they would have been a perfect food source to replenish ship stores. Sad that they are gone, course it's sad that any species is gone, more so when it's directly because of humans.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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