Elephant bird

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Birds

iElephant birds

Conservation status
Extinct  (16th century)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Superorder: Paleognathae
Order: Struthioniformes
Family: Aepyornithidae


Elephant birds are an extinct family of flightless birds made up of the genera Aepyornis and Mullerornis. These large birds, which were native to Madagascar, have been extinct since at least the 16th century. Aepyornis was the world's largest bird, believed to have been over three metres (10 feet) tall and weighing more than half a tonne (500 kilograms, or 1,100 pounds), until being dethroned by Phorusrhacidae in October 2006. Remains of Aepyornis adults and eggs have been found; in some cases the eggs have a circumference of over one metre (three feet). Four species are usually accepted in the genus Aepyornis today; A. hildebrandti, A. gracilis, A. medius and A. maximus (Brodkorb, 1963), but the validity of some is disputed, with numerous authors treating them all in just one species, A. maximus. Aepyornis was a ratite, related to the ostrich; it could not fly, and its breast bone had no keel.

The National Geographic Society in Washington holds a specimen of an Aepyornis egg which was discovered by Luis Marden in 1967. The specimen is intact and contains an embryonic skeleton of the unborn bird.

Whilst it is often believed that the extinction of the Aepyornis was an effect of human actions, a study in 2000, by a team of archaeologists from Sheffield University and Royal Holloway University in the UK, suggests otherwise. Their study in Madagascar aimed to investigate human relationships with this bird. Research reports from Sheffield University stated that there was no evidence for the suggestion that the bird had been hunted to extinction. The archaeologists also believe that the killing of the bird may have been taboo, or "fady," as no evidence was found that it had been killed for food.

The modern Malagasy name for the bird is Vorompatra, meaning "marsh bird". They are commonly known as the 'elephant bird', a term that originated from Marco Polo. It has also been suggested, (compare text on the Fra Mauro map of 1467-69) that the legend of the roc may have originated from this bird.

Reconstruction of Elephant Bird Egg, Ipswich Museum, England
Reconstruction of Elephant Bird Egg, Ipswich Museum, England

Elephant Bird Species

  • Aepyornis gracilis (Monnier, 1913)
  • Aepyornis hildebrandti (Burckhardt, 1893)
  • Aepyornis maximus (Geoffroy-Saint Hilaire, 1851)
  • Aepyornis medius (Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1866)
  • Mullerornis betsilei (Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894)
  • Mullerornis agilis (Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894)
  • Mullerornis rudis (Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894)

In literature

  • H.G. Wells wrote a short story entitled Aepyornis Island about the bird. It was published in The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells ( ISBN 0-7538-0872-2). Full text.



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