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What Happened to The Elephant bird?

What is an Elephant Bird?

The elephant bird was an enormous flightless bird, native to the island of Madagascar. Its scientific name is Aepyornithidae, and it lived about 43,000 years ago. After genetic research, scientists have found that it is closely related to the kiwi from New Zealand and the emu from Africa. The average elephant bird weighed about half a ton, stood at 3 meters tall, and laid eggs larger than some dinosaurs that could contain 9 liters of fluid (Briggs).

The discovery of 10,000-year-old remains of an elephant bird killed by humans led to a revolutionary conclusion: Originally scientists posited that humans came to Madagascar between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago (Briggs). The remains, however, tell a different story. These fossils prove that human beings could have been on the island as early as 8,000 BCE, which not only predates scientist’s theories on when humans first went to Madagascar but also predates it by 6,000 years (Katz). This evidence also means that humans lived in peace with the animals of Madagascar for about 9,000 years. Generally, it was assumed that humans began destroying the environment as soon as they arrived, but they actually preserved biodiversity and coexisted with the creatures of Madagascar for a very long time.

The elephant bird was supposedly first recorded by Étienne de Flacourt, in his 1648 publication "Histoire de la Grande Isle Madagascar." He described the bird as having excellent vision, possessing extreme speed (too quick to catch), and being very timid with humans (Hansford). In a 1667 report by journalist Ruelle, he described the bird as "a terrible winged dragon.”(Hansford) Although these reports are most likely about the elephant bird, Flacourt died before he could defend his claims and a pelt of scales that Ruelle took mysteriously disappeared in transit.

Later, scientist Isidore Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire became the first to examine and report his findings on elephant bird bones in 1851 (Hansford). The remains were practically still warm at the time, so Saint-Hilaire posed that some elephant birds could be alive, prompting many explorers to search for the fowl. However, these expeditions never yielded any living specimens, but many scientists did discover more subfossils that were later displayed in European museums (Hansford).

How did they go extinct?

Scientists originally concluded that humans wiped out elephant bird populations swiftly and brutally, but after proving humans lived in Madagascar well before elephant birds went extinct, new conjectures had to be considered. Some believed it was because of climate change, but the extinction was so rapid, a natural reason is not plausible.

It is more likely that the elephant birds went extinct due to human interaction. The question remains how did humans kill a bird that was too fast for them to catch and large enough to stomp them to death? To start, elephant birds were already vulnerable because they mature at a gradual rate, meaning they also reproduce slower. Another theory asserted that humans harvested elephant bird eggs for protein, but this is again questionable because egg fragments found have either predated humans or been proven to have hatched naturally (Hansford). This is not to say that humans didn’t eat elephant bird eggs, which is very probable, but not to the point of extinction, although it was likely a contributing factor.

The most feasible reason for their extinction, given evidence from scientists, seems to be a mixture of threats from terrestrial predators and humans, slow reproduction, and the elimination of their habitats by humans making way for agricultural lands. Humans certainly contributed to the elephant bird's extinction, but how exactly did they eradicate these majestic creatures? Why did humans coexist peacefully with elephant birds for thousands of years and then suddenly turn to violence?

Interesting tidbits?

  • They are the heaviest birds ever to exist. These behemoths often weighed over 1,000 pounds.

  • There are only 12 fossilized elephant bird eggs in existence, and one in a private collection was sold for 100,000 dollars.

  • Their diet consisted of low hanging fruit from trees, and it was completely herbivorous despite the elephant bird’s large size.

  • There are actually about ten different breeds of elephant birds.

  • In the wild world of modern biology, elephant birds can be brought back to life. Using scraps of DNA found in fossils, and a genome derived from its close relative, the kiwi bird, may make de-extinction of the elephant bird a more achievable goal than many would ever assume.


Helen Briggs “Elephant birds: Who killed the largest birds that ever lived?” BBC News, 13 Sep. 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45495400

James Hansford “To Kill an Elephant Bird: The Extinction of Madagascar's Avian Giants” Unearthed Paleobiology, 20 May. 2019. Capeia Beta https://beta.capeia.com/paleobiology/2019/03/03/to-kill-an-elephant-bird-the-extinction-of-madagascars-avian-giants

Brigit Katz “Giant, Intact Egg of the Extinct Elephant Bird Found in Buffalo Museum” Smithsonian Magazine, 23 Apr. 2018. Giant, Intact Egg of the Extinct Elephant Bird Found in Buffalo ...www.smithsonianmag.com › smart-news › giant-intact-...

James P. Hansford, and Samuel T. Turvey “Unexpected diversity within the extinct elephant birds (Aves: Aepyornithidae) and a new identity for the world's largest bird” The Royal Society Sep. 28 2018. Unexpected diversity within the extinct elephant birds (Aves ...royalsocietypublishing.org › doi › full › rsos.181295

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