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Facts About the Elephant Bird

Anish Chandy
The now-extinct elephant bird was one of the biggest birds that walked the face of the Earth. It is said to be the inspiration behind rocs, the gigantic birds in the fictional story of Sinbad the sailor, which left him shipwrecked on his fifth voyage.
Marco Polo's accounts of having heard of gigantic birds is believed to be an exaggerated account of a species known as the elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus). Also called Vorompatra or Vouron patra, it was a flightless bird of the family Aepyornithidae, which may have survived until as recently as 1649.
Whether it was the largest bird to have ever existed, is a subject of debate, as it receives stiff competition for this title from the moa, a flightless bird native to New Zealand.

The Elephant Bird

There was controversy regarding the veracity of the existence of such a bird, but early Arabian and Indian explorers returning from Africa, brought back with them the tales of eggs that were three feet in circumference. These eggs, which were larger than that of dinosaurs, were the eggs of the elephant bird.


Elephant birds were classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Aepyornithiformes, and family Aepyornithidae. Fossil records show that the Vouron patra was not the only species of Aepyornis that ever lived.
It is thought that between three and seven different types of elephant birds roamed the planet since the Pleistocene. However, only the Aepyornis mullerornis is thought to have survived alongside Aepyornis maximus.

Range and Habitat

The habitat of the elephant bird was the island of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. Its fossils are found in peat deposits along the coast of Madagascar, occasionally in conjunction with hippopotamus bones.


The island was first populated by people who are thought to have arrived around the time of Christ, about 2000 years ago. The first Europeans to visit the island were the Portuguese in 1500. It was only in 1642 that the island saw first human settlement when the French settled here.


The elephant bird is only known from bone specimen and preserved eggs. The largest of these birds reached heights of 10 ft (305 cm) and weighed as much as 1,000 lb (455 kg). Their eggs, the largest single cells in the animal kingdom, measured up to 13 in. (33 cm) in length and held two gallons (7.5 liters) of liquid content.
The evidence found in terms of fossils and eggs is not enough to make many concrete claims about the bird. However, its feet indicate that it was more suited to stomping through dense forests as opposed to the gypsy-like lifestyle of the ostrich.

Flight Issues

Voroun patra was a ratite, a bird which could not fly because its breast bone had no keel. It's the keel that serves to anchor the strong musculature that birds need for powered flight. Other ratites include ostrich, emu, cassowary, kiwi, rhea, and the extinct moa.
Flightless birds evolved early in the Cenozoic Era, when predators such as the dinosaurs disappeared. Other ratites are still found throughout the Southern Hemisphere, which has given rise to the theory that these birds originated on the former continent called the Gondwanaland.


The reasons for the elephant bird's extinction are not clear. The natives considered it a shy, peaceful giant, and often raided their nests for their eggs. While eggs served as food for them, egg shells were used to make ornaments.
This is believed to have caused a complete breakdown in the food chain of the species, eventually resulting in its extinction. Other sources suggest that the bird fell prey to animosity between the natives and settlers.
The elephant bird received worldwide publicity when English writer, H. G. Wells, who was trained as an anatomist under T. H. Huxley, wrote about it in his highly acclaimed short story, Aepyornis Island. More recently, in 2000, it came into the news again because of the discovery of some intact eggs.