Elephant bird is the name given to two large species of extinct flightless birds endemic to the island of Madagascar. The largest bird known to have lived into historical times, the elephant bird has been claimed to have given rise to the Arabian legend of the roc.
The Frenchman Alfred Grandidier recovered the first specimens during one of his research trips on the island between 1865 and 1870. From their skeletal appearance elephant birds had the typical structure of other ratite birds: the legs were long and the toes short while the feathers were rather hairlike. The wing bones were vestigial, and the breastbone was flat and lacked a keel. The neck was long and carried a relatively small skull. The species Aepyornis maximus was the largest representative of the taxon and was between 8 and 9 feet in height and over 800 pounds in weight; only the moas of New Zealand were comparable in height if not weight. Other than skeletal remains numerous complete eggs and egg shells have also been recovered, whose circumference in some cases is up to 3 feet.
Species placement is disputed; science has in the past identified up to four species for genus Aepyornis, with a recent assessment folding all into one species, A. maximus.
- Genus Aepyornis
- Aepyornis gracilis
- Aepyornis hildebrandti
- Aepyornis medius
- Aepyornis maximus
- Genus Mullerornis
- Mullerornis agilis
- Mullerornis betsilei
- Mullerornis rudis
No direct evidence exists of the food that elephant birds ate. Based on what today's ratite birds consume it is speculated that elephant birds were omnivores, eating small game and insects as readily as fruit. The coconut tree (Voaniola gerardii) and Malagasy palm fruit trees (Revenea louvelii, Satranala decussilvae, etc.) both grow in abundance on Madagascar, and the island's rainforests have other fruit-bearing trees similar to those in Australia and New Guinea which are used as a food source by cassowaries.
Étienne de Flacourt (1607–1660) was the first French colonial governor of Madagascar, and he had heard rumors of the existence of the bird, one of which included the name "vorompatra", an old Madagascan name for "bird of the Ampatres". The Ampatres are today's Androy region of southern Madagascar, and it was speculated that a smaller species of elephant bird may have lived there until the early 17th century.
Man's settlement on Madagascar began as early as 350 BC, and speculate that hunting or introduced diseases slowly killed off the elephant birds. But since very few skeletal remains showed signs of butchery, it was speculated that an early tribal taboo against killing the birds was in effect; this taboo did not apply to the eggs, however. Egg shell fragments are found in abundance at sites of early human habitations, and the theory was that the easily retrieved eggs - of which one could feed a family - slowly led to the extinction of the birds, leaving one species left to be described by de Flacourt before it too disappeared.